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Why are Empathetic Listening Skills Important?
Do you and your spouse or partner struggle to really hear each other? Are your conversations filled with “I already told you that!”? Are you wondering why your spouse doesn’t listen to you or thinking that they don’t love you because you feel they don’t really hear you?
Empathetic listening skills could be the key to improving communication in your relationship!
My wife and I have almost always struggled with communication. In the past we’ve been compared to Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk of Star Trek. Typically I am Spock in that scenario, but we have occasionally flip flopped.
I have a tendency to be hyper-focused on efficiency. Thus I can sometimes not be focused on what’s being said and instead focus either on what’s next on my to-do list or how to fix the problem my wife is describing.
In both cases I am not practicing empathetic listening skills. My wife isn’t feeling heard. Thus she’s more apt to feel frustrated or repeat herself, making the conversation take longer. Me in my efficiency mode then gets frustrated that what should have been a quick conversation is getting drug out. I also don’t feel appreciated for my attempts to “fix” her problems. Repeat and escalate.
My wife on the other hand, being the Pisces that she is, tends to pepper her conversation with flowery language. She might go off on a few unrelated tangents. Or she might start thinking something in her head and then finish the thought out loud. You can bet the way she communicates can confuse an analytical mind like mine.
I like to know the what, where, how, when and why. She wants me to realize that the sky isn’t actually blue, it’s just that the blue colored molecules emanating from the sun get scattered more than the red ones due to how the atmosphere refracts the light.
Thus, I struggle with giving her my undivided attention in communication and she struggles with giving clear, concise communication. Rinse and repeat.
What is Empathetic Listening?
Empathetic listing is essentially practicing being mindful in a conversation.
What do I mean by mindful? I mean focusing on one task at a time (in this case listening). I also mean really hearing the words and not just waiting for your turn to talk. You also need to listen without judgement. You are completely focused on your partner and what they are saying.
It may be that you completely disagree with what’s being said. That’s totally OK. But it’s vital that you understand and accept that to the other person, this is truly how they feel. And, most importantly, they value you and the relationship enough to address it. In this case, silence is NOT golden.
In fact the Silent Treatment can slowly kill your relationship. If you or your spouse tend to practice the silent treatment in the heat of the argument, I highly recommend you take a moment and check out my much shared post on that subject.
When you do speak, it can be helpful to simply acknowledge how the other person is feeling. Repeat back what you heard to ensure you really heard what they were trying to say. As with any conversation that might escalate, ask questions more than just make statements.
If we look at the definition of the word empathy, it means, according to Merriam-Webster, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”.
In other words you are putting yourself in their shoes and trying to feel how they feel about the situation at hand. Thus empathetic listening skills are simply tools that we can learn and apply to help foster better communication.
Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy, however. We aren’t trying to feel sorry for the other person. We are trying to relate and understand where they are coming from. Sympathy has a way of making us feel superior. In this situation it’s vital to remain equals.
These empathetic listening skills can work in any environment but they can be especially useful in relationships and marriages. After all, these are usually the people we are closest to, spend the most time with, and with whom we have our guard down the most.
How can we listen properly?
Most of us don’t really listen. We wait for our turn to talk. Instead of really hearing the other person, we’re busy thinking about why they are wrong and formulating our response.
Then you have your turn and the other person does the same thing. The volumes and tempers increase and eventually it ends in yelling and both people storming off thinking the other is an a-hole.
We go off to our corner feeling indignant, questioning why we’re with this person and what’s wrong with them. We question if they really even love us and ponder why they aren’t able to understand what we’re feeling.
In truth, in most cases, BOTH people brought as much baggage to the conversation as the other and both played roles in how the conversation degenerated.
Listening properly, practicing empathetic listening skills, is more than just being quiet. Look at the person in their eyes. If it’s not already a tense situation, physically connect with touch. Slow your breathing. Focus on what they are saying and trying to feel what they feel.
You might feel completely differently but understand that to them, this IS their reality. And if you want to understand that reality you have to accept that this is how they feel. And that you have done things that contributed to it, either through actions or words, or the lack thereof.
Believe it or not, but “basic incompatibility” is the number one reason for divorce. Spouses or partners not feeling heard or valued by their significant other is a HUGE part of that incompatibility. If your relationship feels rocky or headed towards breakup, I strongly suggest you take a minute and check out my #1 post on relationships called Top 3 Reasons for Divorce (and How You Can Avoid Them).
What is active listening and how is that different?
Active listening is essentially practicing empathetic listening skills. However, you can take it a little further by paying attention to things like body language. Our body language can often convey how we’re really feeling, even if our words don’t.
Thus you may notice that what your partner is saying and their body language don’t match. It could be they don’t feel comfortable enough with the situation to really be honest.
Try focusing on the person’s words and their body language. Also make sure your own body language isn’t sending the wrong signals and is helping to calm and deescalate the conversation. If you have noticed they weren’t being completely forthcoming, your own body language can help make them more comfortable in being honest.
How can Emphatic Listening skills help your relationship?
Practicing empathetic listening skills can benefit your relationship in many ways, such as:
- Building trust
- Improving connection
- Reducing tension
- Fostering better communication in the future (because your partner knows they can trust you to really hear them)
You may not even resolve the conflict in the first meeting. That’s OK! But you have taken your first step towards fostering better communication for all future conversations.
There’s a misnomer out there that somehow “successful” couples don’t fight or argue. We do! But there’s a huge difference between a healthy argument where both people feel heard and supported and one that continues to escalate until it explodes.
There was a time a few years back where my wife and I would have really destructive arguments. We would yell, name call, belittle and criticize each other. I was probably worse in that regards but we both did it.
We also both had a tendency to never apologize and to justify why something we had done that was wrong wasn’t really our fault. In truth that’s a tendency we both still struggle with today, although we’ve both improved light years from a decade ago.
Successful couples argue, but they don’t forget that they and their spouse are a team. They may disagree on this issue, but they have the same big picture goals. They are united in the grand scheme of things.
Your spouse or partner is often the person we love and trust the most. The person with whom we are most vulnerable. So it’s vitally important that when we argue we are expressing how a given situation makes us feel and not just putting our partner down.
— Paul Delaney (@coaimpaul) October 24, 2017
If you and your partner struggle with contempt, criticism, stonewalling or defensiveness, just know those are the 4 worst things that anyone can do in a relationship.
But don’t take my word for it! That’s according to world-renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. His book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work may have literally saved my marriage. I dive deep into what he calls The 4 Horsemen in a highly popular post. So if your relationship struggles with those, as mine did, take a moment and see how you can turn that around!
So what are my 9 Vital Ways Empathetic Listening Skills Can Help Your Relationship?
1. BE HEARD!
You and your spouse or partner will feel heard (finally!)
2. FEEL VALIDATED
Your and your partner’s feelings will feel validated.
3. ARGUE LESS
The arguments will become fewer and shorter (with fewer nights sleeping on the couch).
4. INTIMACY IMPROVES
As you improve emotionally intimacy, all forms of intimacy improve (hint, hint).
5. LISTEN, DON’T FIX
You will realize (especially us guys) that our spouse just wants to be heard and that we don’t need to try and “fix” what’s wrong. When our spouse doesn’t feel heard because we’re too focused on trying to fix the problem, their emotional burden stays with them.
6. REMEMBER MORE
By being mindful and really listening, you are much more likely to really remember what you’re being told. So there will be less “I told you that already” conflicts.
7. BETTER COMMUNICATION EVERYWHERE
The skills you practice here will help you in ALL walks of life; conversations with your boss, your parents, co-workers and everyone else you interact with.
8. IMPROVED CONNECTION
In your relationship you are likely to find that as your empathetic listening skills improve, your partner is more and more likely to confide in you rather than outsiders about what’s going on in their life.
9. IMPROVED MOTIVATION
As you spend more time connecting with your partner and less time arguing, that time and energy that used to be spent on arguing and damage control can now be spent much more productively!