Relationship Matters: Listening Well

When I was a young boy, my mom would often say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you speak.” Decades later, there are times when I’m not sure that I’ve fully grasped the wisdom of that adage. Listening well is important in every relationship. And developing good listening skills is crucial for success at work or at home. At times it seems that listening is more important than even what we say.

Here are a few simple thoughts that can help anyone grow in gaining better listening skills:

  1. Only one person speaks at a time. No one is listening when both people are talking.

  2. When listening, make eye contact with the person speaking. Focus. Acknowledge that you’re listening by nodding your head or offering an “uh-huh” from time to time.

  3. Remember the four don’ts: Don’t interrupt. Don’t rebut. Don’t judge. Don’t shut down.

  4. Summarize what you’ve heard. After the speaker finishes talking, summarize what you’ve heard him or her say. For example: “So what I heard you say was . . .”

  5. Acknowledge feelings. Good listening is not only about the facts; it’s also about acknowledging the emotion in the conversation. For example: “It seems like you’re really angry about . . .”

  6. Be curious. Ask open-ended questions. Remember the most powerful three words of listening: “Tell me more.”

When we don’t listen well, we may miss what is really being communicated. At times, we listen in order to “pick a fight” or to “form our response,” and we miss the real intent of the message. “Big picture listening” is learning to hear what’s really being said, not getting tripped up by focusing on a word or a phrase that triggers something in us.

Diane Sollee of the Marriage Institute illustrates it this way:

 “Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in what oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?”

In the same way that the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole, we can train ourselves to hear the whole message that is spoken instead of focusing on nit-picking at the fine points. When we do that, we are listening well and relationships can flourish.

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
— Ernest Hemingway