There is nothing worse than not feeling heard. You’ve probably encountered a bad listener at a party, at work, or even in your personal life. It’s the person who continues to talk without pausing for you to get a word in, and when you do finally get the chance they don’t ask any follow-up questions because they probably didn’t even hear what you said.
In general, most people are not good listeners, but it isn’t always intentional. If you think about a world in which the majority of human beings have not been properly supported or validated, you would realize that we have a large population of individuals who long to feel heard and thus would prefer talking to listening.
Listening is a skill that can be strengthened or weakened depending on many variables. Personality, upbringing, levels of frustration, mindfulness, and empathy can all play a part in whether someone is a good or bad listener. When I work with couples in my practice I almost always have one partner who can’t listen and a partner who doesn’t feel heard. These couples come in to work on “communication,” but it’s less about what’s being said and more about what isn’t being heard.
In this context, the reason for poor listening is usually due to escalated feelings or defensiveness because one partner feels attacked or judged by their partner’s expression of dissatisfaction or hurt. When any of us become activated or dysregulated by strong feelings we organically have a much harder time hearing what the other person is trying to say. This is why two people in an argument might just yell at each other without any ability to resolve the problem. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex takes in information from an external source in a way that allows for reflection. This is easy when you’re calm and focused, but when you or someone you’re trying to talk to gets upset, that part of the brain goes offline and a more primitive part of the brain takes over. This reptilian-like part of the brain just wants to defend and protect; it doesn’t want to hear and resolve.
The good news, however, is that human beings are wired for resolution and reconciliation. We are actually driven to make amends and resolve things peacefully. We want nothing more than to get along and feel loved and connected. This is why we work so hard and stay in difficult relationships for so long. We want them to work even if it means literally fighting for that to happen. Getting out of our own way and learning how to really listen is possible for anyone if the willingness and vulnerability required can be tolerated.
The technique I love the most for becoming a better listener is called active listening. It requires the person on the receiving end to do two things. First, they need to make themselves present and available through eye contact and body language by looking at and facing their partner. Second, they need to repeat back what they hear verbatim.
There are no interpretations, perspectives, or opinions allowed. This is a very difficult process not only because it’s not how we’re used to communicating, but also because it requires the listener to stay out of their own head and really hear what’s being said. Normally we are constantly building our response, story, explanation, or defense in our own minds while our partner is talking. This makes it impossible to remain present. This exercise forces the listener to set aside their own agenda long enough to really hear what they need to hear.
This technique is especially well-suited for difficult conversations (such as arguments with a spouse) and for expressing support. Research suggests that using this technique can help others feel more understood and improve relationship satisfaction. Active listening can be used with other people in your life, such as students, co-workers, or your children. It strengthens trust and can also serve as a means to get away from escalated and cyclical arguments by preventing miscommunication. When you express an active interest in what another person has to say and make him or her feel heard, you foster empathy and connection and reduce the risk of making others feel neglected, disrespected, and resentful.
This communication technique can feel awkward and hokey at first, but without the ability to listen or feel heard you run the risk of increased stress, poor relationship health, and even losing out on the opportunity for the increased happiness that comes with deeper connections. Active listening isn’t just about improving your communication style, it’s also a way to improve your overall well-being.