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Improving Your Listening Skills…

Many of my clients explain that they often find themselves having a hard time effectively listening to their partners. As human beings it can be easy to block your partner out (I like to call this “spacing out”), to rehearse your response instead of listening to what is being said, to pass judgment, to filter what you are hearing, etc.

Listening is an most important communication skill which (when mastered and used correctly) can foster closeness. When you are able to really listen well, you are better equipped to understand your partner and enjoy your relationship in a full and productive way. Listening requires you to be understanding and empathetic, and to see your relationship from another point of view. When you really listen to your partner (or anyone in your life, for that matter) you are in essence sending a message that you are present, that you care, and that you truly want to know what the other person is thinking, feeling and needing. Improving your listening skills can lead to more positive interpersonal interactions in all areas of your life (with colleagues at work, family members and friends).

Below are some common roadblocks to effective listening. Read through this list and see which of these roadblocks you might be currently using to avoid truly listening to your partner:

  • Rehearsing: Many of my clients admit that they are often busy rehearsing their “comeback” statement that they have a hard time listening to what their partner is telling them in the present moment. As an example, Partner A is telling Partner B why he should be the one who takes the dog to the vet this afternoon, but Partner B isn’t listening at all. Partner B is rehearsing his objection to this idea, because he would rather go to the gym instead. By doing this, Partner B is missing Partner A’s deeper concern about him avoiding his responsibilities and her feelings of being overwhelmed on a daily basis. My guess is that Partner A is not feeling heard. I remind my clients that it is important to listen to what is being said in the present moment, instead of formulating your response in your head. In addition, it is important to make an effort to stick to topic you are discussing as opposed to jumping around by bringing up past hurts or arguments.
  • Filtering: Do you ever find yourself listening to some parts of a conversation but blocking out others? If you engage in filtering, you may listen for certain signs (anger, frustration) but essentially tune your partner out when things seem to be okay or going well. Some of my clients also engage in filtering when they block out things that they don’t want to hear or address…sometimes sweeping things under the rug seems to be an easy solution, but these things will resurface at some point!
  • Mind Reading: You are engaging in mind reading when you disregard what your partner is saying to you and instead try to figure out what might be meant by what is being said. Mind readers place a great deal of importance on tone of voice, facial expressions and posture. They basically ignore the actual content of what is being expressed verbally and instead listen to their own internal assumptions. As you can imagine, this can be a major roadblock to effective communication!
  • Advising: If you find that your partner consistently has very little time to speak before you jump in with advice you are most likely engaging in advising. Many of my clients who engage in advising feel that they are doing the right thing by providing a viable solution. You constantly try to give your partner advice on what the right solution is, when he/she may only be asking for support and a place to vent. Sometimes people just have a very basic need to be heard and understood – but not advised or told what to do.
  • Sparring: If you find yourself listening only to debate, argue and disagree you are engaging in sparring. Many of my clients report that they often take a position (and dig their heels in) and defend it – regardless of what the other person involved in the discussion has to say. In many relationships, sparring is the status quo…the standard mode of communication. If you find yourself so argumentative that you are incapable of listening, it’s time to take a step back and examine this sparring behavior.
  • Always Being Right: Of course all of us like being right…but it’s important not to let our love of always being right interfere with healthy communication. Some of us want to avoid any suggestion of being in the wrong, so we lie, shout, make excuses and intimidate others to make sure we remain in the right. As you can imagine, this does not help you to be a good listener.

Sometimes people around you (especially your partner) may resist new ways of listening and communicating. Remember that most people find change, even when it is positive, frightening and destabilizing. I have found that if you are consistent and focus on improving your listening skills, chances are quite good that those around you will shift in a positive direction as well.


Please note, some concepts in this post come from “Couple Skills: Making Your Relationship Work”; Second Edition. Matthew McKay,Patrick Fanning and Kim Paleg. New Harbinger Publications, 2006.

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