The secret to lasting, satisfying relationships is not a secret at all. Sincere listening is the key to all romantic, platonic or work-related relationships. Trust blossoms when people feel heard and understood.
Of course, there’s a difference between hearing and listening, and all of us could use practice with the latter. In his book, The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, Michael P. Nichols writes, “The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person. Part intuition and part effort, it’s the stuff of human connection.”
Want to connect better with the people in your life? Listen up!
Listening is a skill, and reflecting is a technique almost all mental health professionals and business coaches use when teaching listening to their clients. When practicing reflecting, you reflect back what the other person has said, but in a different way. If someone says, “I am so nervous about this pitch and presentation,” for example, you might reflect back, “You’re stressed about all of the work you have going on right now.” Yes, this will feel forced and awkward at first, but once you get used to it, the tactic will show you’re listening and have absorbed the message. It also allows the speaker to see how you have interpreted their words and can prompt them to offer details to further explain (“Well, it’s not the work I’m nervous about. I’m scared to get up in front of the crowd.”).
Save your own response.
When your spouse tells you they can’t leave work to pick up the kids, you probably want to respond, “I can’t either!” Good listeners are aware of their own responses and take note of them, “but put them aside to be dealt with later,” says Julienne Derichs, a couple’s counselor in the Chicago area. Think of it as similar to mindfulness meditation, where you acknowledge your thoughts but let them pass. Instead of bringing up your own feelings right away, hear your partner out. “Consciously let down your defensiveness,” she says. “Focus on what is being said, both verbally and through body language and tone of voice. Try to understand things from their point of view.”
Next, ask questions—as judgment-free as possible—to make sure you’re really understanding the other person. Your clarifying questions might sound like: “I want to make sure I’ve got this right. Did you mean that you won’t be able to make it back in time for the kids?” or “You sound upset to me. Did I catch you at a bad time?” Your goal isn’t to put them on the spot, but to disarm and understand the situation.
Assume the best.
“Positive partners don’t jump to negative conclusions,” Derichs says. If you notice a pattern of cynical assumptions in your relationships, it’s time for a reset. Make a point to hear your spouse or friend freshly each time, so that when they say, “I don’t want to go to the party,” you don’t immediately think the worst: They never want to do anything with me! It’s possible your spouse doesn’t want to go to the party because they want to spend alone time with you at home. See what happens when you ascribe positive motivations to your partner’s words and actions? Your generous spirit might spark a positive chain reaction.