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  • Adam Stanford

Mastering the Art of Listening

Many couples have come to me with a variety of issues that they want to work through. One of the most common issues that I have observed is communication breakdown. Couples often come to me seeking help in improving their communication skills so that they can better understand each other, resolve conflicts, and build a stronger and more fulfilling relationship. One of the key skills that I teach couples in therapy is the art of listening.

The Importance of Listening in Couples Therapy

Listening is a critical component of effective communication. When couples come to therapy, they often have a lot to say. They may have been holding back their thoughts and feelings for a long time which can easily lead to resentment and a lot of misunderstandings. By actively listening to each other, couples can begin to understand each other's perspectives and feelings. This can help to build empathy and strengthen the relationship.

In couples therapy, listening is particularly important because it helps to create a safe and supportive environment. When couples feel that they are being heard, they are more likely to open up and share their thoughts and feelings. This can help to build trust and create a more positive therapeutic experience. When couples are able to listen to each other and understand each other's perspectives, they are more likely to be able to resolve conflicts in a constructive way. This can help to reduce tension and create a more harmonious relationship.

Common Barriers to Effective Listening

  • Distractions: Couples may be distracted by their own thoughts or external factors, such as noise or other people in the room. A person cannot completely listen and seek to understand someone while they are also forming their responses in their own mind. When you are listening, only listen, don’t distract yourself by thinking about what you want to say when they are done.

  • Prejudices: Couples may have preconceived notions about each other that make it difficult to listen objectively. Try to focus more on what you are actually hearing instead of extrapolating, making assumptions, and “reading between the lines.”

  • Defensiveness: Couples may be defensive and resist hearing each other's perspectives.

  • Lack of empathy: Couples may struggle to put themselves in each other's shoes and understand each other's feelings.

The Art of Active Listening

A great rule of thumb is the old saying, “seek first to understand, then be understood.” Active listening is a technique that involves fully engaging with the speaker and demonstrating that you are listening and understanding what they are saying. Here are some key components of active listening:

  • Pay attention: Focus on the speaker and give them your full attention.

  • Show interest: Demonstrate that you are interested in what the speaker is saying, and encourage them to continue.

  • Reflective listening: This involves repeating back what the speaker has said in your own words little bits at a time while they are speaking to demonstrate that you are being attentive and doing your best to understand.

  • Clarify: Ask questions to clarify what the speaker is saying and make sure that you understand their perspective.

  • Nonverbal cues: Use nonverbal cues, such as nodding or maintaining eye contact, to show that you are engaged in the conversation.

  • Avoid interrupting: Allow the speaker to finish their thought before responding or reflecting back what you heard.

  • Ask open-ended questions: Ask questions that encourage the speaker to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings.

  • Summarize: Sum up all of the key details that the speaker shared once they are finished speaking and before you respond.

Developing a Plan for Improving Listening Skills in Couples Therapy

Developing a plan for improving listening skills can help couples to stay focused and committed to the process. Here are some key steps to developing a plan:

  • Identify goals: Discuss what you hope to achieve by improving your listening skills.

  • Identify barriers: Discuss the common barriers to effective listening and how you can overcome them.

  • Set realistic expectations: Accept that changing old habits takes time so be patient with yourself and your partner and don’t expect perfection for the process and the outcomes. Improvement happens in steps overtime and it’s not always linear the whole way through.

  • Practice: Practice active listening techniques and reflect on your progress. Catch your partner and yourself doing well. Focus on and encourage your successes by showing gratitude for the effort and the steps in the right direction.


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