How to be a Better Listener

Has your significant other ever said to you, “You aren’t listening to me!” even though you really thought you listened? Have you ever wanted to know how to be a better listener for the person you love?

Listening Gone Wrong

It can be frustrating when you are trying to be a good listener, but somehow it isn’t going well. Maybe you feel like your partner is speaking a completely different language. In your mind, you’re begging them to “just say what you mean!”

Maybe you really want to connect and help out, but you and your partner both just end up more frustrated after you try to communicate.

Or, maybe you used to try, but now you feel so distant from your partner that it’s easier to just nod while they talk and hope they don’t notice that you haven’t been listening…

Sometimes, maybe it seems like your partner is speaking in code.

You hear your partner say one thing but it seems like they mean something else. Or, you try to respond to your partner in a helpful way, but it just seems to make things worse.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, you can become a better listener by learning about the skills of a listening detective!

Be a better listener by becoming a listening detective

A listening detective works to solve the mystery of what their partner is really saying, thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing.

A normal listener just hears the surface of the speaker’s words, missing all that is underneath, and likely, more meaningful.

To make this concept easier to understand, it’s important to note the difference between the speaker and the listener.

The speaker is the person who began the conversation about the issue. Even though both partners will be speaking, the person who brought up the topic is considered the speaker. On the other hand, the listener is the person who the speaker presented the issue to.

One partner will not always be the speaker or listener. The role will change depending on the conversation and which partner was the one who brought it up.

So, when it’s your turn to be a good listener, being able to think of yourself as a “detective” is an important skill to acquire because it keeps defenses down and gives both people the opportunity to feel heard and understood.

Sharing Feelings Isn’t Easy

It is not uncommon for people to have trouble saying what they really want or how they really feel. It makes us feel vulnerable.

Try to make it easier on your partner to share their feelings by reassuring them you want to hear and listen.

There are also some people who just never learned how to share their feelings! There isn’t something “wrong” with your partner if you think that they struggle with communicating clearly. You or your partner just may need some help.

That’s where the “listening detective” skills can help!

Essentially, being a listening detective requires you to listen with the intent to understand your partner, rather than to thinking about how respond to what the speaker is saying.

Usually, when people communicate, they are thinking about what they are going to say next – even if they aren’t aware of it.

In other words, listening detectives don’t think about how they would like to respond. Instead, they try to decipher the meaning behind what their partner is sharing – like watching for clues to solve the case!

In a discussion or conflict when the speaker brings up an issue, it can be tempting for the listener to interrupt by saying, “That’s not what I did!” or “You’re twisting my words!”

That is not what a listening detective would say because it ends the conversation. This is because when the listener says phrases like this, walls go up before the speaker ever had the opportunity to fully express him or herself. Then, both partners are left feeling misunderstood and more distant from each other.

So what does a listening detective do differently?

The difference between regular listening and being a listening detective has to do with the way the listener responds to the speaker.

After the speaker has stated something, a listening detective makes a guess about what the speaker was saying. Want to give it a try?

After listening to your partner sharing something with you with all your attention, you might reply with something along the lines of, “You feel ______ about ________ because ________.”

This is a very simple way for you to make an educated guess, but it gives your partner the chance to say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant!” or “No, not quite. Let me try to say it differently.”

For example, here are two dialogues between Katherine and Henry. The first dialogue shows how the conversation might normally go. The second will demonstrate the skills of a listening detective.

Conversation Between A Speaker & Regular Listener – AKA – NOT a good listener:

Katherine: At work today, my co-workers were being so loud. I had such a hard time getting my work done that I asked them to be quiet. They just ignored me and told me to mind my own business.

Henry: You just need to toughen up! Don’t let them get to you. You might actually like work if you just tried not to be so sensitive about your co-workers.

Katherine: You think I’m being sensitive? You try editing papers with three people practically yelling right by your desk.

Henry: Oh come on, I doubt they were yelling. Maybe you could bring some headphones to listen to music at work to drown them out.

Katherine: Why would I bring music? I just said that I can’t work unless it’s quiet.

Henry: I was just trying to help.

Katherine: Never mind, you don’t get it.

Conversation Between a Speaker & a Listening Detective:

Katherine: At work today, my co-workers were being so loud. I had such a hard time getting my work done that I asked them to be quiet. They just ignored me and told me to mind my own business.

Henry: It sounds like you felt really disrespected about your co-workers ignoring your request because you like to work in the quiet.

Katherine: Yes, that’s exactly what it is! I feel so disrespected when they do that. I don’t know what to do.

Henry: Yeah, that puts you in a tough spot because you don’t know if you should stand up for yourself or try to ignore them. Neither option is perfect.

Katherine: I know, I really hate confronting people, but I also really need to get my work done.

Henry: That sounds really tough. No wonder you got so angry at work.

Katherine: Thank you for saying that! You totally get it.

Were you able to notice the difference in the way Henry was listening when he was a listening detective? All he had to do differently was listen to what Katherine was saying and reflect Katherine’s own emotions and thoughts back to her!

He made a hypothesis using the “You feel ____ about ____ because ____” format, and it made Katherine feel safe to keep sharing by knowing that she as understood.

Often times, when people share things, they want to be understood and validated. Using the skills of a listening detective allows the listener to do exactly that. Use your listening skills to reflect emotions and thoughts back to the speaker!

You’ll seem empathetic, supportive, and caring – who wouldn’t want that in a romantic partner?

Seven helpful tips to make yourself a better listener:

1. Listen without judgment. You should be listening to pinpoint exactly what your partner is feeling and why – not to impose judgment on their feelings or reasons for those feelings. This also will increase feelings of empathy between you

2. Don’t be afraid to make your hypothesis. Even if you incorrectly guess that your partner is feeling nervous, for instance, they may reply, “no, that’s not it.” But guessing still shows that you care and are trying to understand.

3. If you don’t understand, ask some questions. Even though you are listening to your partner, you still can ask questions to try to get a better understanding.

Try not to sound like a robot using the “You feel _____ about ______ because ______” after everything he or she says. Even though you are using different skills, the words coming out of your mouth should still sound like they are coming you.

If you don’t know what your partner is feeling, you can guess or ask! If you don’t understand why your partner feels a certain way, ask him or her. Just make sure that when you ask, you are asking from a place of concern or love – not judgment.

4. Focus on being interested – not interesting. If your partner is sharing something with you, they want to feel heard. Make your partner feel valued and appreciated, and ensure that they know you are interested in what they have to say. It will get you much farther.

5. Give your partner your full attention. Put your phone away, turn off the TV, move to a quieter place if you are distracted. Show your partner that they are who you care about most. Try to embody the phrase, “When you’re hurting, my world stops and I listen.”

6. If your partner makes a complaint, try not to take it personally. Remember, your job is to understand – not to defend yourself. Try to understand your partner’s perspective and validate it when you do! Remember – you don’t have to agree with their statement, but you do have to understand their perspective.

7. Expect to mess up. No one is perfect, and learning to implement these skills every time your partner is sharing something important will take time. You will have to re-train your brain. Even licensed therapists have trouble being listening detectives 100% of the time in their own relationships – it can be hard!

Ready to fine-tune your communication skills and become a better listener? Our Denver couples counselors are ready to help. Call us at 303-513-8975, X1, or schedule online today:  Schedule Appointment

This blog post was brought to you by couples therapy specialist Emma Abel.

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