Effective Couples Communication: Helping the Listener Listen Better

One of the most basic and important parts of effective couples communication is the attention and focus the listener brings to the communication table. Often when couples complain about a breakdown in communication, in part they are referring to the distress of not feeling heard by their partner.

Effective listening is an essential ingredient to meaningful communication.

A Recipe for Marital/Relationship Problems

Patterns of not feeling listened to for extended periods of time are associated with a wide range of marital/relationship problems. Common complaints of couples who enter marital/couples counseling often involve feeling like their partner doesn’t care or show enough interest or has disengaged from the relationship.

As one wife shared, “My words no longer matter to him. Now I know what it’s like to be married yet feel all alone. My husband just doesn’t listen anymore.”

A chronic lack of effective listening frequently leads to mounting frustrations, resentment, depression, and feeling alone, uncared for and undesired.  

We’d all like to believe that we are married to or are in a relationship with an intuitive listener, that special someone who has the capability and desire to stop whatever they’re doing and bring their full awareness to whatever is of concern to us. And while some of you maybe lucky enough to be hitched to such a spouse/partner, I think it’s fair to say that many of us are in a relationship with a different type of listener. 

Many of us are in relationships with the I’m-really-tired-and-I’ve-got-tons-on-my-mind listener. With this type of listener, his/her ability (and, at times, willingness) to be attentive and fully present (two essential features of effective listening) is usually hit or miss.

Effective Communication 101: Setting the Stage for Effective Listening

The reality may simply be that if you’re in a relationship with the I’m-really-tired-and-I’ve-got-tons-on-my-mind listener, s/he can improve as a listener with a little support—to reach this end, the speaker can help the listener transition the focus away from their own preoccupations, worries, and mental to-do lists onto what the speaking is saying. (Please note that I’m not making excuses for poor listening, nor am I suggesting that the listener doesn’t bear the responsibility for becoming a more effective listener).

Preoccupied spouses/partners sometimes need a mental jump-start to help them focus on what their partner is saying/needing. This jump-start can take the form of the speaker prefacing her communication with transitional statements—a kind of communication opening act that helps the listener enter a sharpened mental zone that is more conducive of effective listening. This may sound complicated but it’s actually quite straightforward.

Here are a few examples of prefaces that can help the listener focus on your message:

Do you have a moment…(I need to ask you a few things; I’d like to plan for the weekend, etc.)
I’d like to touch base about something, are you able to give me your attention now?
Can you give me a couple of minutes…
I see you’re busy right now, when can we discuss…
This is really important to me. Are you able to really be present?
I need you to really focus (really listen, really give me your undivided attention)…

The above list gives just a few suggestions—can you think of other prefaces that fit your style of communicating and that can help your partner shift into a more focused, effective listening mode?

In my marriage/couples counseling practice, I have found that men benefit as listeners when their spouses/partners approach them in this manner. As one husband shared, “It helps me feel less overwhelmed when Diane approaches me this way. I don’t know why, but it helps me focus better. Not all the time, but more of the time…”

Effective Couples Communication 101: One Final Note

Don’t overuse prefaces, especially the, “This is really important to me…”  preface. If you highlight everything you say as especially important, from the listener’s standpoint, you are simply crying wolf and you will dilute the power of your communication prefaces.

Let’s make effective communication a regular part of your relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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