Relationships can be difficult. Whether it's a relationship with a significant other, children, close friends, clients, customers, colleagues, or any of a dozen or more types of relationships--good communication can be a game changer. When I was doing couples counseling, I found communication problems played a significant part in most couples' distress.Good communication skills are not really "secrets," but they sometimes seem that way because those skills are not taught in grades K through 12. Well, at least not when I was in those grades. In fact, it wasn't until I was in graduate school that I even heard the term, "active listening." Active listening is about learning to listen to understand what the speaker is saying rather than listening to decide what we're going to say back to what the speaker is saying--or, more accurately, what we think the speaker is saying.
There are many theories of counseling and therapy that include many variations on active listening and related communication skills, but over the years, I've found that there are 10 key steps that form the foundation of healthy communication.
1. Be fully present. Sometimes when folks see (or hear) this one, their response is something like, "What do you mean? I'm right here!" When people say that, it usually means, "My body is here." Being fully present is deeper than that. Being fully present is an intentional choice to make sure that your whole self is present, that not only body but also mind and spirit are “plugged in” and available.
Being fully present means turning all of your attention on the person speaking to you. What it means in terms of body, mind, and spirit, is:
• Body--Sitting across from the person speaking to you, your body in an open, attentive posture--no crossed arms or legs, leaning slightly toward the person speaking (rather than leaning back), and making eye contact.
• Mind--Suspending your thoughts about other things like things that happened during the day, the "to do list" that so many of us have running through our heads most of the time, and any of the other many, many thoughts that can make us feel like a gerbil on a wheel.
• Spirit--Approaching the conversation with genuine interest, in an honest attempt to learn whatever it is the speaker needs and wants to communicate, and mobilizing all of the goodwill you can rally within you in an honest effort to understand what the person has to say.
2. Pay attention. We all think we're paying attention when we're having a conversation. We're not. Other thoughts intrude. If the conversation involves a disagreement, many (if not most) of us tend to take a defensive posture and think about what we're going to say back rather than truly listening and hearing what the person is telling us. Active listening involves paying attention so carefully that we can repeat back exactly--word for word--what we've heard the person say. Eye contact (but NOT staring!) is important in relational communication.
3. Look at the speaker. No one likes to be stared at, so constant eye contact is not the way to go. But it doesn't feel good when someone you're talking with avoids looking at you, either. Find a balance in the level of eye contact that is comfortable for both you and the other person. Don’t let yourself be distracted by other things in the room.
4. Reflect back what the speaker has said and summarize it as accurately as possible--don't add your interpretation. Okay. This is where it gets tricky. You think you have been fully present and attentive, you've kept your posture open, you've found a good balance of eye contact. You may need to ask the speaker to stop for a moment so you can make sure you've heard each key point correctly. (Using your hands in a "time out" sign is a good way to indicate that you need a break, but this is a sign you both need to agree on before the dialogue.)
Use your turn to reflect back what you've heard the person say, beginning by using a phrase like, “I hear you saying . . ." then repeat back what you've heard using as many of the other person's words as possible.
Part of what makes this tricky is that folks sometimes forget to use "I" statements. They make "you" statements instead. It's very easy for "you" statements to come across as accusatory or as an attack, whether they are intended that way or not. I can only speak what's in my own head and heart, not what's in the head and heart of the other person. I don't have the power to do that. That's why it's important to say, "I hear you saying . . ."
5. Ask them if you heard them correctly. If necessary, clarify. Ask the person, “Is that right . . .?” But don't be surprised if you hear a frustrated response like, "No, that's not at all what I said." Sometimes we put our own subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--"spin" on what the person has said. That is an extremely common problem!If the other person says you got it wrong, it's important to ask them (calmly) to tell you again. Then you reflect back what you heard--again--saying, "I hear you saying . . ." Then ask again if you got it right. This type of exchange may go on for a while, but if either of you feels like it's going on for too long, or if either of you are feeling too frustrated to continue, this may be a conversation that needs to be facilitated by someone else--a therapist, a clergy person, or some other trusted professional who is skilled in this kind of communication.
However, in my experience working with individuals and couples for many years, when a listener follows through with steps 1 through 4, step 5 tends to be more successful.
6. Summarize what you’ve heard. When step 5 is finally successful, go back and summarize all of what the speaker has said, again, using as many of the speaker’s words as possible. Then, once again, ask if you got it right.
7. Empathize and validate the speaker’s feelings. When the speaker agrees that you've correctly heard her/him, pause for a moment and take a breath. Remember that you are trying to understand what the speaker is trying to say, not to inject your own thoughts and feelings into the situation--and you will undoubtedly have many! But now is the time to empathize with what the other person (the speaker) thinks and feels. If you find it difficult, simply ask, saying something like, “I think it would be hard to be in a situation like that. I'm wondering how you're feeling about it?"
8. Normalize the speaker’s feelings. When the speaker has been able to name the feeling(s), it's helpful--and often very healing-- to say something like, "Given what you’ve said, it makes sense that you might be feeling _____." It's important to note here that doing this does not mean that you are agreeing with the speaker's interpretation of the events or issues under discussion! It means that you are stepping back from your own feelings about the events or issues to understand the speaker's perspective.
9. Ask what the speaker needs. When the speaker acknowledges that s/he feels heard and understood, it can be helpful to then ask, “What would be helpful to you right now?" Or, "What do you need right now?" Sometimes you will be able and willing to offer what the speaker needs. Sometimes you won't.If you can't or if you choose not to offer what the speaker needs, some additional dialogue may be helpful--but at another, mutually agreed upon time. You will both likely need a break from the discussion.
If you can or choose to offer what the speaker needs, then do so. The dialogue may still need to continue at another time to allow the individuals to switch roles.
10. Closure If you have both successfully completed all of these steps (in both roles, as necessary), congratulations! You've learned to actively listen in a relationship discussion, whether the discussion is with a significant other, child, parent, colleague, or whomever. This is, unfortunately, a skill that few people ever learn. When both individuals in a relationship feel heard and understood, the relationship becomes stronger.
*Please Note: I offer these with one important caveat: Do not attempt to use these steps in an abusive relationship or in any relationship in which you do not feel safe (for any reason). Please seek help and safety.
©2020 Martha J. Horn, PhD