We usually focus on improving our communication skills actively through the words that come out of our mouths, when it’s just as important to improve the passive capability to understand the words of our partner. Although many people consider themselves to be “great listeners,” forty-five percent of all communication is spent listening, and twenty-five percent of that (roughly ten percent overall) is actually retained. Being a good listener involves five steps: receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding, and developing all five should help improve the quality of perception, appreciation, and strengthen the quality of your relationship.
This is the most basic part: listening with your ears (verbal messages), watching with your eyes (non-verbal messages), and absorbing the content of what your partner is saying. This is the point where you should avoid distractions and focus on being the listener without interrupting or stamping your immediate opinion on the matter. Make this stage all about your partner’s release.
Avoid the knee-jerk response of “I totally get it,” and dig deeper to learn the meaning of the message based on tone and non-verbal cues. Instead, paraphrase what your partner said, relate the new information to what you already know, and ask questions to help clarify any confusion. You want to understand your partner’s point of view in order to express a caring perception of their feelings.
We often remember what we thought was said, rather than what was actually said. We take away meaning and feeling of a conversation typically without absorbing the content. Although our brains have evolved this way to remember breadth, rather than depth, it is essential to bear in mind central ideas, summarize concepts, and focus on key names and ideas. Recall through repetition is often the best way to establish long-term memory, so feel free to come back to the same topic or conversation multiple times.
This is where you judge the content of the message as well as the intentions of your partner without vocalizing it. Do not judge or assume too quickly, and even if you responded in your head with an immediate judgment, feel free to reevaluate your response before blurting it out. Additionally, try to differentiate fact versus inference without assuming too much on your own.
There are two levels of response: feedback cues and a complete reaction. Feedback cues are the little verbal and non-verbal acts that you give while your partner is talking, including eye contact, head nodding, “sure,” “uh-huh,” and pressing questions about the topic. The complete reaction is at the end after you have received, understood, remembered, and evaluated your partner’s full message. Don’t feel that you have to resolve their issue or fix their problem, but instead give your honest reaction that addresses their message, their meaning, and allows you to continue the conversation in the future for deeper understanding and recall.
These things take time and it’s especially hard to break the habits learned over years of listening and reacting in your own way, but improving on these stages will help develop healthier communication with your partner and lead to an improved relationship.