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Listening: The Key to Effective Communication

Communication breakdown in relationships has reached epidemic proportions.

Couples are very busy. In most cases both partners work; they have children to raise; and family and friends to attend to. They are always in a hurry. In the Rush that has become their life, they find that they haven’t got the time to listen and to respond to each other. Before they know it they have stopped communicating and perhaps have even stopped relating.

If this problem is not addressed it may result in the demise of many relationships. The thing is that most couples are not aware that their communication has broken down. They accept as normal their brief contacts over a meal or as they rush off to work. With little time for sharing they establish a communication pattern based on a lack of listening as they pay lip service to what their partner is saying. A false belief emerges that if I see your lips moving and respond, I am listening and understand what you are saying. But just because you say “I understand”, does not necessarily mean you do.

Communication refers to the sending and receiving of information between two people. For the communication to be successful the intent of the message sent by the sender needs to be accurately received by the receiver. This process is dependent on the ability of all parties to stop and give attention to what is being said. So it all starts with the Listening.

When a relationship is formed both parties tend to listen attentively to each other and respond only when they are sure that they have understood the message. Communication is important to them. With the passing of time, and the complacency and comfort that a relationship brings, communication ceases to hold such importance as assumptions are now made that partners are tuned into each other and are communicating well.

Such had been the belief of Penny and Jake. They were both in their late thirties; had career ambitions; and were raising two children 10 and 13 years old. Their life was going to plan. They both knew their roles in the relationship and in the family, and each day flowed by on automatic pilot. They did not give their communication much thought, as the groundwork for their interactions had been clearly established and only required an occasional ‘tweak’. Or so they assumed.

Penny and Jake’s Story

Penny and Jake were not unhappy in their relationship. They however were beginning to realise that something was amiss with the way they were communicating to each other. There were signs popping up everywhere that their lack of listening was impacting on many levels of their life. When once it had been easy to discuss events in their lives and exchange information, they found themselves easily distracted and were thereby missing important pieces of information. On more than one occasion one child was left waiting for their ride home as either Jake or Penny had not listened to the discussion that had changed the plans. An excuse could be found in that they were both just too busy.

But when they were not busy and had scheduled time to discuss household matters such as the finances or the children, they were still not listening to each other. Either they were too impatient with what their partner was saying, or they had heard this before, or they knew what their partner was going to say before they said it, and so their mind wandered off some where else- away from the interaction. This lack of listening often resulted in shouting matches and arguments and no solutions were ever reached, responsibilities remained unmet, and each party accused the other of not listening.

When two people communicate well they listen attentively to each other and share meaning together. They connect and are bonded by the intimacy of this exchange. Penny and Jake were only half heartedly communicating and were beginning to miss a more authentic connection.

Eventually there were many examples of this ‘not listening’ in their lives.

For example:

Jake felt that Penny did not appreciate the difficulties he was having at work. He worked for a marketing firm where the pressure to maintain and find new clients was never ending. Adding to this Jake was experiencing some antagonism from some of his colleagues. The tension at work was suffocating and Jake needed to be able to talk through his thoughts and feelings with Penny. And this was not happening.

When he was able to grab Penny’s attention for 5 minutes and share his concerns he felt Penny’s agitation for him to hurry up and finish speaking. She would occasionally interrupt him and finish his statements as if mind reading. Sometimes she would take on the role of analyst and diagnose his situation and offer solutions without having really heard his story. Usually such conversations ended with Penny walking away and commenting on the need to discuss this problem at a later date.

Penny may have heard the words that Jake spoke but she certainly was not listening to them, otherwise she would have stopped all she was doing and provided him the attention and care he needed – just by her listening. Instead Penny was in a hurry to move onto the next thing, and her responses were actually barriers to effective listening.

Jake was just as guilty as Penny. Penny for as long as she could remember had had a troublesome relationship with her critical mother. As she did not want to deprive her children of their grandmother she accepted her mother’s presence in her life, and suffered in silence as her mother criticised and ridiculed her every action. But she could only be silent for so long and every now and then she needed Jake to be her sounding board and to listen to her as she vented her pent up frustrations.

As she and Jake were readying for bed she would let loose a tirade of comments. Jake believing that this situation had been going on long before he entered the picture and would continue for ever, did not really listen to what Penny was saying. On some occasions he would try and placate her by saying that she was right and everything would be okay. At other times he tried to divert the conversation to another subject leaving Penny lost in the middle of her emotional storm.

Jake either because he was tired or because he did not know what to say in these situations was also not listening. He had created barriers limiting his ability to help Penny and contributing to a potential breakdown in their communication.

Both Penny and Jake were starting to interpret their partner’s failure to listen to them as a lack of interest in their respective lives. And this lack of interest was further translated into a lack of care.

Fortunately Jake and Penny had been able to identify the broken link in their communication channels. And once they had relearned how to listen to each other they would be well on their way to communicating effectively.

The first step was to introduce them to a number of Communication Barriers that were impeding the communication process. So before they were taught what to do, they were learning to identify what not to do.

Barriers to Listening

A barrier is anything that interrupts and disrupts the communication between individuals. Some barriers are environmental such as noises. Other barriers are more personal and refer to our habits and mannerisms that we have learned throughout our lives. These are the ones that once identified can hopefully be avoided.

Some of them are:

  1. Judging– placing a value such as good or bad on what is being said
  2. Selective Listening– only listening to parts of the communication that interest you
  3. Placating– quickly agreeing with whatever is said without hearing the entire communication in your desire to be nice and avoid discord
  4. Planning Ahead– planning your response to what is being said and so not being in the present and listening to what actually is being said
  5. Deflecting– changing the topic so as to avoid unpleasantness
  6. Advising– telling someone what to do rather than just listening to them
  7. Second Guessing– finding hidden meaning in what the other says. For example, partner says “I feel like eating fish tonight” and this is interpreted as, “He doesn’t like the way I cook chicken.”
  8. Labelling– calling the other person names based on negative perceptions

Most couples are not aware of their communication barriers and need the assistance of their partner to highlight when they are using them. Once these barriers have been identified it is up to each individual to pay attention to their conversations, note their negative patterns, and practice avoiding them in their communications. To help the couple become more mindful of their unique barriers some partners write them out on post-its and place these in strategic places throughout their home and work environments.

With perseverance couples begin to minimise the presence of these barriers and begin to listen more attentively.

As evident in the case of Penny and Jake there were some glaring examples of barriers at work. Once these had been identified Penny and Jake made an agreement to stop each other in conversation if they were using one of their barriers. By drawing attention to them they would soon become familiar with them, and hopefully begin to minimise their use.

They then decorated their home and respective offices with post-its listing their personal barriers. With these constant reminders of what not to do they eventually were able to eliminate most of the barriers most of the time, and were ready to move forward on their road to attentive listening and effective communication.

Tips for Optimising the Communication Experience

As previously noted a great deal of our communication is on the run. Words are exchanged over a hurried breakfast, while waiting in line in the supermarket or when sitting in the car driving somewhere. More and more we are seeing quick comments on the mobile phone or txt messages masquerading as meaningful communication. So anything that can help the communication process is to be welcomed.

Once barriers have been determined and steps have been taken to avoid them couples are ready to engage in effective communication. To kick start the process there are some basic principles to keep in mind:

  • If more serious content is to be discussed schedule a time for the communication ensuring no one feels rushed
  • If the conversation is spontaneous stop whatever you are doing and listen
  • Avoid distractions as much as possible
  • Tap into your Empathy and try to see and feel what your partner is experiencing
  • Note your body language and the message that your eyes, body posture and facial expressions are sending
  • Ensure that your tone of voice, body posture and facial expression are in sync with what you are saying
  • Listen with respect and acceptance of what your partner is saying and avoid the communication barriers

The above points can help set the tone for effective communication. What is needed now are some guidelines on how to listen and respond to your partner. The three step process- Listen, Play-it-Back and Respond- is a format developed for this purpose.

Listen, Play-it-Back and Respond

A. Listen

Partner One starts the process of communication. Partner Two listens by following these guidelines:

  • Empty your mind of all other thoughts
  • While your partner is speaking focus your attention on them and avoid distractions
  • Stay in the present and stop your mind from straying into such thoughts as “here we go again” or “hurry up I have something else to do”
  • Note all the non verbal cues being transmitted: Is your partner’s posture comfortable or rigid? Are they frowning or smiling? Is their voice tense or soft? Is what they are saying congruent with the rest of their body?
  • Note both the facts and the emotions being expressed
  • Be mindful of the barriers
  • Listen with enthusiasm, care and interest

B. Play-it-Back

Before Partner Two responds to what Partner One has said they need to relate back to their partner what they have heard to make sure they are correct in their understanding. If Partner One feels that their message has not been accurately understood they may need to repeat their entire communication or at best they may need to answer any clarifying questions posed by their partner.

Some tips to keep in mind at this stage are:

  • Preface your statements with a phrase such as: “If I heard you correctly..”, “What I hear you saying…”, “It sounds to me…”
  • Relate back just what you have heard and understood
  • Note you are not only playing back the words your partner used but also the intent of their communication as received by you
  • Comment on your observations of the non verbal cues- if considered relevant
  • Your response should convey both the facts and the feelings expressed by your partner
  • At all times remember that what you have heard is your own interpretation so use the word “I” when relating back
  • If your partner indicates that you are not accurate in relaying what they have said you may ask some non-intimidating questions to help you understand your partner’s communication
  • It may be necessary for your partner to repeat the entire communication or parts of it
  • As this is a process of clarifying and verifying it is necessary for both partners to be patient and understanding

C. Respond

Once it has been acknowledged by Partner One that their message has been clearly understood Partner Two may offer their response. The points to keep in mind when responding are:

  • Keep using “I” statements to express your thoughts and feelings
  • Acknowledge and address the concerns, comments or issues raised by Partner One before presenting your views
  • State your response honestly using a non threatening supportive tone
  • Avoid the communication barriers
  • If you do not agree with what Partner One has said stop and think before you respond
  • Try and keep your response as clear and direct as possible
  • Remember that Communication is a collaborative experience

All the while Partner Two is speaking, Partner One is listening attentively and in their turn will relate what they have heard, and so the process goes on and on.

When Jake and Penny were introduced to this exercise they found it quite challenging as it required time and patience. As well conversations at first were a bit stilted and felt artificial. They however persisted and eventually were able to automatically flip into listening mode when they began a conversation. Soon they were taking great pleasure in understanding what they were saying to each other.

Penny and Jake had worked hard in re establishing the communication in their relationship. As they got better and better at listening and talking to each other they began to enjoy each other more and more, and rediscovered a companionship that had been lost in their busy worlds. Communication was no longer a chore but had become another way in which they expressed the uniqueness of their relationship.

For many couples the ideas presented in this article is all they need to open the channels for effective communication. Other couples may need a bit more assistance in expanding their skills so as to be able to deal with conflict, anger and other emotions that pop up in the communication process. But without a doubt the ability to listen is the key to a better communication.