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Good listening skills are crucial for all relationships, whether it’s family, friend, professional, or romantic, and let’s be honest, it never hurts to collect a few more tips for listening in relationships!
Active listening involves giving feedback to the speaker that you are focused on what they are saying, but being a good listener in marriage or relationships is even more than that. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to become a better listener to your partner if you are willing to implement a few of these relationship listening tips.
Tips for Listening in Relationships
Tune Out Distractions
This might seem like a “duh” listening tip, but it’s incredibly important and something that many of us struggle with. Some things you can do in advance to better set yourself up for mindful listening, like silencing your phone, turning off music/tv/devices that may be going in the background, or moving to a quieter place if you’re out in public.
If you’re one of those people that still have a hard time staying focused on a conversation even without any external distractions, try this trick for focus: mirror the person speaking. This involves reflecting the hand and body movements and facial expressions of the person you’re listening to, and it works because it gives your body something to do while you’re listening, helping you not only show the speaker you’re engaged in the conversation but also helps you stay focused on the words they are saying.
Give Positive Feedback
No, this doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing with everything that is being said, but rather that you are actively engaging in nonverbal and verbal ways that indicate to the speaker that they are being heard.
Similar to the mirroring mentioned above, there are other nonverbal and verbal ways to show that you are listening, like maintaining eye contact, giving slight nods or turns of the head, and offering audible affirmation that you are actively listening, like “hmmm” or making a light “tsk” sound with your lips.
Again, this is all to demonstrate that you are actively listening to your partner, but don’t let your positive feedback become a distraction in and of itself! When you’re with someone a long time, you’ll easily pick up on when your partner is listening and when they are not, so it’s especially important to learn how to be a good listener in marriage and other committed relationships if we want to have healthy, respectful communication.
Leave the Assumptions Behind
We all bring our own assumptions to the conversation, but if we want to be better listeners in our relationships, it’s important to be aware of when we are doing this so we can check it. Common assumptions might be that you already know what it is that the other person wants to say, that you know why the other person wants to say it, and even that you know what they “really” want to say even if they aren’t coming right out and directly saying it.
Whew. That’s a lot of assumptions!
There are a few issues with these assumptions, but the main one is that we do not live in each other’s heads, hearts, and bodies, so even if we know someone through and through, we still will not know exactly what it is that they want to communicate with us, and it is disrespectful to assume that we do!
Assumptions get in the way of listening in relationships because if we think we already know everything the speaker is going to say, we will be filtering everything through that idea and we won’t be hearing the reality of what they say. Check your assumptions and listen to the words as they are being said, instead.
Aim for Understanding
The perfect segue from checking assumptions at the door, aiming for understanding in a conversation puts us in the perfect place to actually hear what is being said. To do this, cultivate a mindset of curiosity. If you are genuinely curious to hear what the other person has to say (instead of assuming you already know!) you will be aiming for understanding.
Listening in relationships can be a little trickier than listening to strangers because you carry all the memories of every shared interaction that you’ve ever had, and this can color not only what you hear during the conversation, but also what you’re thinking about!
Remember that in a conversation, you shouldn’t be rehearsing your responses while the other person is speaking. Cultivating curiosity about what the other person has to say so you can understand what they are wanting to communicate will help keep you focused on listening rather than responding. If you’re looking for how to be a good listener in a relationship, this is important.
Look for Nonverbal Cues
Paying attention to nonverbal cues is a great way to participate in active listening in relationships because a lot of what we communicate to each other is in these nonverbal cues. You likely already know that if someone begins with their hands on their hips or their arms folded across their chest, they’re likely already in an aggressive or defensive state, and this will give you a good communication clue.
Just as important as paying attention to the nonverbal cues of the person you’re listening to is, it’s also important to mind your own! Above, mirroring was mentioned as a means to stay focused on the conversation, but it’s also an excellent way to reflect back to the person speaking that you are fully engaged in the conversation with them and are hearing what is being said.
Don’t Debate Someone’s Experience
This is one of the most essential tips for listening in relationships because when someone is telling you their perspective on something, it is generally not the right time to challenge that perspective, even if you had a different understanding of the experience.
If it is a situation where the speaker is missing information or would benefit from hearing your experience, choose your words carefully, focusing on using “I” language, like “I had a different experience during X, because what I saw was…”
You don’t want to directly contradict someone’s experience because everyone is entitled to their own perspective, but you can offer your own in response if it is helpful or necessary. Healthy listening in relationships should involve everyone feeling safe enough to disclose their perspective honestly, and this can only happen if we don’t feel as if our partner is going to point fingers at us for being “wrong.”
It can help to keep in mind that feelings are just feelings, they are subjective and can’t be labeled “right” or “wrong,” so listening in relationships should involve respecting your partner’s feelings even if you don’t share them.
Pick a Good Time to Talk
This can’t always be done, but if you know that someone needs to speak with you about something, pick a good time to talk where you can fully focus on the conversation. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of choosing when we will have relationship discussions, but if you can avoid having a talk during a time there will be natural distractions like being hungry before lunchtime or being rushed to make it out the door at a certain time, you’ll be much better set up to focus your attention fully on the conversation at hand.
Paraphrase and Summarize Back
This is another one of those important active listening tools, and if you can get this one down, you’ll become a much better listener in your relationships. To paraphrase is to repeat back what the speaker said in your own words, and to summarize is to recap all you’ve heard.
When you are able to reflect what you’re hearing back to the speaker during the conversation, they are assured that you are hearing them and they are also able to clarify any points that you might not have gotten quite right. This is one of those relationship listening tools that can prevent miscommunications and future fights down the road.
Whether you’re looking for how to be a better listener in a personal or professional relationship, hopefully these relationship listening tips will help you along the way.
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Amy Hartle is the author of Do You Love Me? How To Stop Seeking Reassurance in Relationships, a book on reassurance seeking and relationship anxiety. Both her book and this blog are born of personal experience; Amy shares expert relationship advice from the lessons learned during her own 10+ years with her husband, as well as couples travel tips and romantic getaway recommendations, all gleaned while traveling the world together.