One of the most common issues seen in couples therapy is intimate partners dealing with poor communication styles. This can result in a breakdown of intimacy, increased fighting and bickering, and a disintegration of an emotional bond that once brought happiness and pleasure to the couple. The way messages are communicated between couples struggling can be interpreted in negative ways leading to distortions, misunderstandings, and arguments that end up cycling and repeating.
Active listening is a skill that can be learned by both partners to improve not only communication style, but also begin to build back compassion and empathy for one another. Active listening means, just as its name suggests, listening actively and concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively hearing the message of the speaker. Too often when a partner becomes elevated and emotional they start formulating their response or counter-argument which inhibits them from hearing their partner fully and possibly missing the message that is being delivered. Active listening involves using listening with all five senses. When a listener is giving their partner their full attention he/she is better able to interpret what is being said. Non-verbal signs of active listening show your partner that you are willing and engaged in hearing what is being spoken.
Below are some examples of non-verbal signs including:
Neutral facial expressions. Allowing the face to relax and avoiding making negative expressions or frowning tells the partner/speaker that you are open to hearing what is being said without a biased or emotionally laden judgment.
Eye contact. Maintaining this connection with your partner will allow the speaker to feel heard and that you are paying attention.
Distraction. To show your partner that you are fully engaged in the conversation avoid fidgeting, looking at your watch, playing with your hair, picking at fingernails, or tapping your feet. Emotionally heavy conversations can be difficult and by inhibiting your attention from be distracted you’ll show you are engaged.
Body language. Mirroring certain body positions of your partner can be a sign of active listening. If your partner is standing when expressing their feelings, get on their level and stand with them. Leaning towards your partner when sitting can be a sign that you are attentive and willing to participate in the dialogue. Nodding your head occasionally tells your partner that you understand and are hearing what they are saying.
Verbal signs are used after the speaker has completed delivering their message. This is the time when you can ask for clarification, offer support, and reflect what has been said. To let your partner know they have been heard repeat or paraphrase what your partner has just said. This is a powerful skill as it demonstrates comprehension and demonstrates to your partner that you’ve been listening. For example you could start off reflecting by stating, “What I’m hearing you say is......” and then paraphrasing what has been said.
By practicing active listening, communication will be enhanced between partners. Listening without the intent to respond is an efficient first step toward improving your communication style.