The Power of Listening

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An excerpt from Love Skills by Linda Carroll

Listening is one of the most powerful ways we let other people know they are important to us. How we respond when they are talking is critical, but another component is important as well: recalling later what they said.

And listening isn’t just good for the person being heard — it’s good for the listener, as well. When we feel close to another person, our brains release oxytocin, the chemical that promotes bonding. Just think about those times you’ve felt a genuine sense of intimacy with someone else when you were laughing together, crying together, or feeling truly heard and understood. It’s exciting to feel so connected, and at the same time it’s deeply calming, like stroking a pet or sitting by the ocean.

Sometimes it is hard to really tune in. An example is when your partner wants to talk about a point of view that’s directly opposed to yours. It may feel like a criticism — or is one. It can also be tempting to tune out when you’re distracted by your own concerns, feelings of defensiveness, or simple boredom when it comes to the particular topic. At such times, the last thing you may want to say is “Tell me more.” Yet, the rewards of increased trust, well-being, and connection are well worth a commitment to attuned listening.

There are four kinds of listening:
• Pretend listening: Although you make listening gestures like nodding and murmuring “mmm-hmm,” your mind is somewhere else. You might say nice words such as “I hear you,” but your partner won’t be fooled. Your thoughts, facial expressions and body posture suggest that you’re not hearing at all.

• Selective listening: When you “semi-listen,” you are merely searching the other person’s words for bullet points on how to respond when it’s your turn. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” you might say, or “Sounds like a tough day.” But your reaction is more about you than the other person, and you’re silently criticizing, judging, or deciding whether you agree.

• Careful listening: You’re paying more attention to the other person than to yourself, but you have your own conversation going on in your head at the same time. You are still agreeing, disagreeing and sometimes judging, but not as much as with selective listening. You may mentally wander off mid-conversation, but you bring yourself back to the other person and try to formulate your responses with care.

• Deep listening: You’re acutely aware of the other person, as though you’ve crossed a bridge into his or her world and have temporarily left your own behind. You’re not judging or distracted; instead, your goal is to make the other person feel connected to you and reassured of your total focus. You’re also paying attention to nonverbal cues — the messages conveyed by the person’s eyes, body language and tone. Rather than behaving as though you are present but remembering maybe 25 percent of the conversation, in deep listening you remember most of what the other person has said. Whether or not you agree, you seek to understand your conversation partner’s perspective, and you show genuine empathy and respect for the thoughts and feelings being expressed.

Good listening is more than just a mechanical response. It’s a skill that requires us to quiet the compelling distractions that compete for our attention when someone else is sharing with us, such as thinking about what we are going to say in response, evaluating the person speaking, and reflecting on our own lives. Of course, mindful listening doesn’t mean we don’t have any internal dialogue. It simply means we are aware of this “background noise” and are willing to work diligently to bring our focus back to the other person.

When you and your partner are in gridlock about a seemingly unresolvable issue, doing what you can to preserve the connection is vital. Making an effort to truly hear one another’s point of view and acknowledging that neither of you is crazy or wrong can create an environment of empathy and help both partners to lower their defenses. This can make the problem seem much smaller, and although it may not resolve the issue, it sustains the connection between partners.

Of course, we can’t listen deeply all the time. Sometimes we just like to spend time together while engaging in small talk. Other times we just want information and not much more. What’s important is that we remain aware of the different kinds of listening and that we possess the emotional sensibility and skills to know when it’s time to tune in to each style of relating. One way of doing this is to agree that when either of you needs deep listening, you will ask for it.

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