Building Strong Relationships Through Communication
Listening is an art form that needs to be practiced and nurtured. Unfortunately, many times we are in a rush and don’t take the time necessary to really listen to the person we are talking with. In fact, often, we talk “at” the person instead of with them. We’ve all experienced that. We call to tell a friend our exciting news and while we share we can hear their keyboard tapping in the background. Doesn’t that make you feel like if they really cared about you that they would stop for 5 minutes to listen to what you have to say?
Yes, it feels downright crummy. But we do it to others all the time without realizing it. So, you can see where I am going with this – it is hard to build substantial bonds with another person when we clearly are not listening to what they say. If you want to enjoy long-term relationships, you need to develop your listening skills so that you can let others know that you care about what they have to say. The techniques in this post are tried and true ways to develop the art of listening.
Want it – Do you want to listen better? Really hear what other people are saying? If you don’t, you can stop reading right here. Without this strong desire, you will not actively participate in the art of listening. If you do have the desire, keep practicing with everyone you converse with. Use the techniques here to strengthen your listening muscles. (Hint, they are between your ears.)
Listen without thinking – This is a tough one. We are so used to thinking about what we want to say in response to the other person that we often only hear what we want to. This is called selective listening, and it’s not good for any relationship. You will likely need to consciously remind yourself to stay focused only on what the other person is saying for a while. But with practice, it will become more natural until you no longer need to think about it.
Do not interrupt – Boy, do we like to interrupt people when they are talking! You might notice you do this even more with people that you are close with. Spouses and close friends often interrupt the other person to add their two cents, add to or correct what is being said. Until you get more used to avoiding interrupting others, you may find yourself needing to bite your tongue. But people will definitely notice when you listen to them completely before speaking when they are done.
Practice listening – Let the other person do most of the talking. Some experts recommend up to a 70/30 split–spend 70% of the time listening and only 30% of it talking. It is unbelievable how much people will open up and really share when they are not constantly interrupted.
Listen with your eyes – Make sure to provide eye contact when the other person is talking. In the West, this is one way we signal to others that we are engaged with what they are saying. Conversely, when we are talking, we tend to look around some rather than look intently at the other person. Each culture has their own listening patterns, so be aware of that when in conversations with others. Making eye contact also helps you keep from getting distracted by things going on in your environment.
Listen to body language – Approximately 60 – 75% of all communication is nonverbal. Clearly, we need to pay attention to the other person’s body language to get the full story. Of course, this is not always possible if you aren’t with the person. But even then, listening carefully to their tone, emphasis, and word choice will give you a better picture of what they are really saying. Once you know someone fairly well, you will start to pick up their “tells” – the little gestures they make when they are feeling a certain way. These will help you listen better than if you only use your ears.
Ask relevant questions – You do not want to interrupt, but you do want to ask questions to make sure your understanding is clear and to show you are deeply engaged. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of it, but don’t be afraid to speak when you have something you are curious about.
Ask open-ended questions – If you want to keep the person talking or you want more information, asking open-ended questions will do this. Open-ended questions are ones that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no” or another simple explanation. They give the speaker a chance to flesh out what they mean or give a full explanation. When you ask these types of questions when appropriate, you demonstrate that you care about what they are saying.
Listen without judgment – This can be a real challenge, especially when you do not agree with them or do not particularly care for them. This might happen in a work association. You need to interact closely and communicate clearly with a colleague or supervisor whom you don’t like or with whom you often disagree. It’s easy to misunderstand what they are really saying when you are already forming an opinion about what they are saying. Do your best to avoid this situation, especially during an argument. If you catch yourself doing it, just notice the dip into judgment and then come back to pure listening.
Get rid of distractions – Like the example used in the introduction, when we are paying attention to something else in our environment and not to the person talking, guess what? We are going to do a halfway job of hearing them. Our attention is divided, so we only pick up bits and pieces of what they say. And guess what else? They will probably notice that they only have half your attention. Reducing the distractions by turning off the TV or music, stop surfing the web or typing that email and really focus on the words that the other person is saying.
Listen with heart – When a conversation is emotional or the other person is sharing something that is emotionally-charged, whether it’s excitement, worry or hurt, it’s important to listen to the emotional undertone so that you can really connect with the person on a heart level. Do not be afraid to open up yourself to that type of listening because it can make a huge difference in the depth of your relationship with the person.
Show you are listening – This does not mean just making,” Sure, whatever you say, honey” noises. It means nodding your head when you understand or agree with them. You can also include quick positive comments like, “sure” or “yeah” which let them know you are right there with them, in more than body. Have you ever tried to talk openly to someone who gives you absolutely no signals that they understand, agree or even care what you are talking about? That kind of stoic listening is unnerving to the other person. Even facial expressions like a sudden smile or raising your eyebrows gives the speaker clues that you are hearing them.
Practice active listening – This is an important technique that is great for all relationships. We’ve all been in situations where we weren’t quite sure we understood exactly what the other person was getting at. Since communication styles differ, it’s safe to clarify or verify that you are “getting it” by asking things like, “So, are you saying that…” or stating, “What I hear you saying is that…” and then rephrasing it in your own words. This does two important things. First, it lets the other individual know that you are truly listening and are trying to fully understand. It also gives you both the chance to clarify any miscommunications before going further into the conversation or action is taken on a misunderstood recommendation or request.
Practice mindful listening – This just means that you are focusing on being fully in the present moment, not thinking about the last time the person had this same problem and went on and on about it. Not thinking about what you will have for lunch because your stomach just growled. Not thinking about the time this conversation is taking up and all the other things you should be doing. Yeah, we do this a lot, don’t we? This tip goes hand in hand with several of the other suggestions and can be felt by the other person. They will pick up the vibe that you are really hearing and understanding them.
If you are trying to strengthen your relationships, practicing the art of listening is a must. If you illustrate often enough that you have other things on your mind or don’t really care about what they want to talk about, the other person will eventually stop communicating, at least with anything that’s worth sharing. It effectively closes down communication. And without clear communication about things that are important to both people, a relationship has little chance of surviving or growing.
Becoming a master at the art of communication can improve all your relationships and interactions. It shouldn’t be assumed that you are listening just because you are keeping silent and looking at the person. It takes practice and attention to master the craft but is well worth it. You will start to see immediate results in each of your relationships when you begin using these techniques.