Couples Communication: The Basics of Effective Listening

Michael wasn’t really listening to his wife. He might have thought his quick reply (“I understand what you’re saying but…”) proved his attentiveness, but what it really showed was that he was fully absorbed in his own perspective, with little room for his wife’s viewpoint.

Telling your partner/spouse, “I understand” is miles from demonstrating an understanding—making the speaker feel understood.

During the process of effective communication, the intention and goal of both parties should be the creation of mutual understanding, even when couples don’t see eye-to-eye on what is being discussed. How this is accomplished falls squarely on the shoulders of effective listening.

Relationship Help: The ABCs of Effective Listening

All communication involves a speaker and listening. And to be effective in each of these roles, certain guidelines need to be followed for meaningful dialog to occur. When couples throw caution to the wind and allow emotions to steer what is said (and how it is said), breakdowns in communication are more likely.

In my Communication Breakthrough Workbook, I break down the listening process into easy-to-remember steps to enhance communication success. Let’s turn briefly to the “C” in the ABCs of effective listening.

Once the speaker delivers his/her message, there are two steps (“Cs”) the listener can follow in order to facilitate deep understanding. These are:

(C)onfirmation: Here the listener confirms what the speaker has said. Harville Hendrix calls this listening process “mirroring,” which means that the listener mirrors back what s/he just heard from the speaker. Confirming the speaker’s message allows the speaker greater confidence that the listener is in fact really listening and has accurately captured the meaning of the message.

Confirmation creates a bridge between the speaker and listener, making the speaker feel more secure that the listener cares about her/his concerns and interests.

(C)uriosity: I often encourage the listener to then ask questions (if needed, after confirmation has occurred) to better enhance his/her understanding or address concerns that the speaker may have. Genuine questions of curiosity (“How long have you been feeling this way?”; “How have I been contributing to you feeling this way?”; “Is there anything I can do to help with this?”) deepens the speaker’s experience of being listened to and cared for—these types of questions send the speaker the message that s/he matters to the speaker.

Learning any new skill requires patience and practice in order for the skill to take hold. So I want to encourage you and your partner to practice the listening skill of confirmation and curiosity. The goal is to make these relationship skills a new part of your communication toolbox.

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