Listening: an elusive art

Listening: an elusive art
We are all guilty of poor listening at times, writes Barbara Duff


Do you ever feel that your partner does not really listen to you? Well, don’t worry – you are not alone. And chances are that at times your partner feels the very same.

For most of us, the art of true listening is a real challenge. Yet, good, attentive listening is a vital ingredient in a healthy relationship.

That is why it’s crucial to focus on this very important area. You may want to feel that your partner listens to you, but are you a good listener? If you can master the art of true listening, your partner can learn from you.

How do you become a good listener? Read on and find out.

To truly listen to the other person requires real concentration and focus.  Your ability to listen attentively can depend on your perception of what is being said. Good listening also demands a receptive mind open to receive whatever message is being given.

Feeling unheard

What is it like for you to feel unheard? The couples I have worked with report a wide range of experiences – I feel worthless, as if I’m not even worth listening to; I feel really frustrated – no matter what I say, I can’t get the message across; after a while I become withdrawn; I think my partner is not interested in me; eventually, I become really angry; what do you experience when you feel unheard?

Getting the message across

“How can I get my partner to listen to me?” – this is a common plea. The frustration at being ignored can build up into feelings of anger and rejection. For you to operate effectively as a couple, each needs to feel listened to. Each of you needs to feel that your message has been heard by the other.

Before you and your partner do the listening exercise here, assess yourself as a listener. Do you only half listen? Some of the pitfalls mentioned below ring true for most people. Which of them apply to you?

Pitfalls of poor listening and how to avoid them

Switching off once, you think you are going to hear a complaint. “Here we go again” – maybe the message should not be dismissed. Give your partner a chance.

Interrupting your partner to make a correction to the story – hold it – your chance will come later.

Filtering out negative messages – a common self-protection device – stay calm and listen.

Preparing your defence while your partner is speaking – this shows that you are thinking of yourself. Try to think more of your partner.

Failing to pick up your partner’s feelings of hurt, frustration or anger – focus on the feelings behind your partner’s words. Watch the body language.

Dismissing the message even before you have heard it – try opening your mind before you close it.

Watch out for these tell-tale statements – they can become a habit.

“But wait a minute…” This indicates that you are on the defensive. You are already prepared with a counter-attack.

I can’t believe I’m hearing this…” This response of outrage, mock outrage or anger indicates that you are refusing to listen.

“Oh for heaven’s sake! That’s what you always say.” This dismissive response expresses contempt. It indicates that you have little respect for what your partner feels or thinks.

Each of these responses is a clear indication of poor listening and can only have a negative impact on your partner. As you become more aware of how you speak and listen to one another, you will no doubt avoid using such tactics.

We are all guilty of poor listening at times. Yet we all want to be heard.

To be a good listener

Clear your mind of distractions; put aside any negative thoughts such as irritation or anger; look at your partner when he/she is speaking; watch out for signs of distress or frustration; try to focus only on what is being said, not on your reply; keep an open mind even if you don’t like what you hear; try to empathise with what your partner is saying; what do you need to change to make you a better listener? Work on it.

Listening exercise

This exercise is designed to help you and your partner really listen to one another.

Whoever speaks first is Speaker A. Whoever listens first is Speaker B. Read the guidelines before starting the exercise.

Person A guidelines

Think of some issue or incident with your partner from the recent or distant past that upset you. As you talk, focus on how it made you feel.

For example: “When you didn’t arrive on time, I felt let down at first. As the time passed I became angry. But when I couldn’t contact you I began to feel anxious for your safety. Then finally you breezed in with some feeble excuse for being late. I felt relieved to see you but really hurt and still angry. You dismissed my upset, telling me to cheer up – now that you had arrived we should enjoy our time together. I tried to move on but all evening I felt resentful, as if you did not understand me at all.”

Person B guidelines

As you listen, focus only on what your partner is saying. Take particular note of how this incident made your partner feel.

When giving your feedback, stick as closely as you can to what your partner has said.

Avoid dismissing your partner’s feelings, e.g.: “You shouldn’t feel hurt.”  What your partner feels is what your partner feels – it is real for him/her and must be acknowledged.

Avoid corrections, e.g.: “You said I was half an hour late. In fact, I was just 25 minutes late.” This indicates that while you were listening you were preparing your defence. This reinforces your partner’s sense of not being heard and understood.

Listening exercise: part one

Person A speaks for five minutes without interruption on an issue that they have found annoying or troubling in the relationship. Person B keeps silent. You must listen without interrupting – even if you think A has got the story all wrong.

Person B then spends three minutes recounting as accurately as possible what they have heard A say. This is simply recording – no corrections or perceived inaccuracies to be addressed at this stage. You simply say: “What I have heard you say is…”

Person A gets one minute to correct any misinterpretations or omissions that B has made. “Yes, you got most of it right. But you left out that I said I felt hurt, sad…”

The object of the exercise here is that Person A feels that B has really heard what A has said and that B acknowledges how A feels. So, when you are the listener – B, it is vital that you simply acknowledge receipt of the information.

Avoid giving your response however well-meant, e.g.: “I know you say it makes you angry but really there is no need to feel that way.”

There will be time later to come to an agreement on how to handle such an issue in the future. For now, your role as listener is to do exactly that – LISTEN – not to comment, however helpful you may think that could be.

Listening exercise: part two

Next, the roles are reversed. Now B gets a chance to speak on an aspect of the relationship. It can be on the same issue or it might be something else. Person B decides.

Follow the steps as in part one.

Barbara Duff is a relationship and psychosexual counsellor with over 20 years’ experience. This is an edited extract from her new book Rekindle the Spark, published by Orpen Press (€12.00).