How can you become a better listener? In this article, I'll share tips for couples so you can improve your listening skills and learn how to be a better listener in your relationship.

Let's start with this: "Why do you want to become a better listener?" Do you want to:

  • Stop fighting; resolve recurring disagreements and conflict

  • Improve emotional and physical intimacy

  • Build trust and safety

  • Understand your partner better

  • Navigate emotional triggers with safety and compassion

  • Grow together

  • All of the above, or something else?

It's helpful to get clear on your personal motivations so that you're not just doing it for your partner and can commit to building new communication habits because you want to.

Next, why are we ineffective listeners in the first place?

We live in the information age, an age of instant gratification. We're constantly bombarded with people and businesses trying to get our attention. Even as you read these words, notice how busy your mind is. Most of us are incredibly distracted, caught up in our automatic thoughts, not fully present. We can barely sit still for 5 minutes without doing something. We live in reaction to our external world. Peace and stillness have become boring. The result is we have little control over this valuable asset and gift called our attention.

We live a large portion of our life on autopilot because our brain conserves energy by automating tasks we do repeatedly. We even automate our partners. We assume we know them and reduce them to a concept, this known thing that we're no longer curious about. Martin Buber calls this "I-It" vs "I-thou" relating where we condition ourselves to relate to our partner as an object that we're disinterested in instead of an eternal mystery to be endlessly discovered.

Turns out deep listening is actually vulnerable. As I break down the 4 levels of listening, you'll see that the 4th level invites us to allow ourselves to be changed and affected by our listening. Sometimes getting distracted is a protection-mechanism that is used to maintain our sense of self. When it comes to conflict, we resist entering our partner's world. We don't actually want to see their point of view because it opposes our own and threatens our position and belief system. We resist empathy because we're more committed to defending ourselves and proving our point than learning or connection.

This article brings awareness to the multitude of dimensions you can be aware of when listening so that you can broaden and deepen the way you receive your partner to become a better listener.

It's not just how you listen but how you respond that determines how deeply someone feels seen, understood and valued.

The more intentional you are with the way you respond, the more you can intentionally create the outcomes you want in relationship and engage in a dialogue that nourishes both you and your partner (the Speaker and the Listener).

Just before we dive in, remember, no level of listening is bad or wrong. It’s best to relate with these levels as awareness that can support you in being more intentional with the way you listen.

Level 1 - Distracted / Pretend Listening

  • You either don’t care or don’t have the mental and emotional capacity to give your full attention to your partner. You're not present, don't have the energy or are disinterested in listening to your partner.

Level 2 - Selective / Reactive Listening

  • Listen within your own frame of reference. You unconsciously ask yourself, “What does this have to do with me?” You compare what your partner says to yourself and are likely to take what your partner says personally resulting in reactivity and defensiveness.

  • Listen until it hits a trigger. You unconsciously ask yourself, “Do I agree or disagree?” If you disagree you stop listening intently and disregard what your partner says because it conflicts with your point of view.

  • Listen to confirm your judgments / beliefs / opinions. The confirmation bias automatically filters information to prove what you already believe. You unconsciously search for information that re-enforces your position which closes you off to empathy, learning and connection.

  • Listen for solutions. Since many of us gain significance from helping others, it’s common to adopt the Fixer / Rescuer / Hero role . When you listen from this orientation, you make your partner a victim, someone who needs your help and end up taking responsibility for their problems.

  • Listen for content / information. There is so much more information being given to you than words: body language, tone of voice, emotion, context and what isn’t said are a few examples.

  • Listen for your turn. Your partner finishes and you jump in to comment on what they said. You reacted because you were listening to respond not to understand.

Level 3 - Active Empathic Listening

In level 3 you consciously shift from "listening to" to "listening for" which means you're aware that listening has multiple dimensions. You also acknowledge that there is a reciprocal relationship between listening and speaking. Just like pouring water into a cup, the way that you listen shapes the story being told. At this level of listening you consciously give your attention to your partner, engaging them with curiosity to create a safe space for understanding.

Active Listening is the opposite of passive listening. Passive listening is disengaged. Complete passivity is not what we're aiming for in becoming a better listener. Active listening means engaging with your partner as a companion as you journey into their inner world, checking in and showing them along the way that you're with them. Psychologist Carl Rogers sums up active empathic listening nicely:

"Empathy is saying to someone: “I’m trying to be a companion to you in your search and your exploration. I want to know, am I with you? Is this the way it seems to you? Is this the thing you’re trying to express? Is this the meaning it has for you?” So in a sense I’m saying, “I’m walking with you step by step, and I want to make sure I am with you. Am I with you?" - Carl Rogers

The empathic aspect of active listening refers to perspective-taking - using your imagination to try and see things from your partner's perspective. This is easy when you agree of course, but when you disagree it's a stretch! If you're unable to see things from your partner's point of view, try getting curious and ask more questions to better understand them.

When you ask questions, the intention behind your curiosity is to create shared reality. Like a Venn diagram, questions help you eliminate assumptions so that your perceptual realities overlap as much as possible.

  • Listen to what your partner says and doesn’t say. What they leave out is just as important as what they say. (ie. They could talk all about their childhood but never mention their dad. Why not?)

  • Listen for hidden assumptions and expectations. What are the assumptions, conclusions, biases, blindspots and questions underneath their words?

  • Listen for nonverbal cues and emotions. Body language is another form of expression that gives you more information to feel, know and be with your partner. How do you feel your partner's presence? What you feel can point to how they're feeling, but don't assume, check your assumptions!

  • Listen for personal meaning. Every word has slightly different meaning to different people. Pay attention to distinctions that help you clarify your partner's personal meaning asking, "What does ____ mean to you?"

  • Listen for context and purpose. Your partner's life history has shaped how they see the world and how they act today. What your partner says is content, why they're sharing that content is context - where they're coming from. What is the motivation, intention or purpose underneath what they're saying? You can ask: Why is x so important to you?

  • Listen within their frame of reference. Ask yourself, “What is it like to be my partner?” Seek to “try on” their experience of reality to see things the way they do from the inside out. You'll know you've got it when you can be them and even speak as them accurately.

  • Listen for the Chief Concern vs. Chief Complaint. Every complaint is a genuine caring concern in disguise. You can intentionally search for the caring concern underneath every complaint knowing that every time your partner speaks or complains they desire to be heard. There is always a good reason why they're choosing to share their voice and story.

Level 4 - Listening to Learn / Generative Dialogue

This is a subtler distinction that builds upon level 3. It highlights how deeply you are willing to be changed and affected by what you receive as the Listener.

  • Deep listening is vulnerable. When you listen deeply, you're willing to be affected and changed as a result of what someone says. You are humble and open yourself up to being changed, to see new perspectives that might conflict with your current worldview. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." When you truly listen deeply, you're a companion on you're partner's journey, allowing them to go where they want to go despite what it may bring up for you:

“I believe: the deepest way you can love somebody is to be willing to FULLY go on their ride. To listen to them so deeply that - through your listening - they gain deeper insight into their own experience.” - Guy Sengstock

  • A generative dialogue leverages the power of our difference to create something new. In other words, rather than try to see things the same way, you acknowledge that you are different and use your unique perspectives to create a more complete picture of the whole truth - reality. In order to engage in this kind of dialogue you must be open to expanding your current worldview to include potentially uncomfortable and conflicting ideas.

"I've learned that my view of the world is no more true than my partner's point of view. In fact, when we combine our views, we create something more valid than either one of us can create alone. We both give something up, only to gain a great deal more." - Harville Hendrix