How to really listen? Good communication starts with listening

(As a response to this discussion thread I wrote the following on listening skills.)

In the lifestyle, we talk a lot about the importance of good communication skills. What do good communication skills entail? A lot of things. One of the most important of them all is being able to really listen.

While listening skills are often overlooked in a relationship, they are one of the most critical aspects of communication and understanding between ourselves and our partner(s). Listening involves an awareness of what our partner is really saying to us or asking us to do. With good listening we are able to ensure we understand the true meaning of a request or statement.

We have all heard about “active listening.” I think this technique is broadly misunderstood for being artificial. No, it’s not just about looking at the person speaking, smiling and nodding in approval. It’s a lot more than that. Let me describe the way I approach it, and you will see what I mean. It is a four step process:

1. Affirm content. This may include: Maintaining eye contact and staying engaged, nodding in approval (but it does not stop here!)
2. Paraphrase the message. By using phrases such as “what you are saying is that, … <summary of message>” or “I like the way you describe it… <summary of message>” we confirm with our partner that we correctly understand the message
3. Clarify the implicit. Bring out the unspoken content (underlying meanings) and have your partner confirm (or not confirm) them. For example: “When you say <xxx> I get the sense that you mean <yyy>. Is that so – can you explain?”
4. Reflect core feelings. This should reflect the underlying importance of the message. For example: “Thank you for explaining to me what you think and feel about <xxx>. It makes perfect sense to me now.”

Try this. It is not artificial. It is very real – and it really works.

Let me list some of the most common communication pitfalls I have observed:

  • Feeling that your partner is at fault and you are the victim and there is nothing you can do about it. This way, you will not be able to resolve anything
  • Feeling defensive if your partner has an opinion that is different from yours. Most likely you will not listen but just interrupt your partner, and he/she will not be able to get their points across
  • Rejecting and devaluing your partner. Example: “I cannot understand that you are into <fill in you favorite kink>. That is sick and disgusting”
  • Expecting a change in personality in your partner. Major changes may take a significant amount of time. If you and your partner have different personality types, it is important to acknowledge the characteristics of your own type while being open-minded enough to appreciate the personality characteristics of your partner
  • Exchanging unclear and mixed messages with your partner. In this case, try to focus and re-center the communication by going back to using active listening
  • Digging up the past with your partner
  • Arguing for the sake of arguing. Yep, this is a perfect way to destroy a conversation
  • Failing to be specific enough. Being clear and precise is a skill in itself. There are many rhetorical techniques that can be used here to improve upon the “precision” of a message
  • Jumping to conclusions too quickly. Make sure you first understand what your partner is saying (remember #3 and #4 above!)

I hope this is helpful. (We spend a significant amount of time talking and applying/practicing these techniques as a part of this workshop series.)

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