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Why Active Listening is The Heartbeat of Healthy Relationships

Imagine you’re talking with your partner after a long day, your thoughts tumbling out, raw and unfiltered, and your heart earnestly trying to make itself heard. But rather than feeling understood and cherished, you see them absent-mindedly checking their phones, and their responses are mere grunts. These situations are all too common in relationships, underscoring the importance of an often-underappreciated skill: active listening.

Active listening in relationships is more than just hearing your partner’s words. It’s about diving deep into their world, feeling their emotions, understanding their perspectives, and validating their experiences. In this article, we’ll explore how active listening is a cornerstone of healthy relationships and the magic it can weave in your relationship.

What Is Active Listening?

Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman believes in the power of active listening in relationships. He stressed out that listening is one skill every couple needs to feel happier and less resentful. But it’s not just about hearing the words your partner is saying; it’s active listening.

Active listening is a communication technique where one fully focuses, understands, responds, and then remembers what is being said. It’s not merely a passive absorption of words but an active engagement with the speaker—both verbally and non-verbally.

It’s about pausing your thoughts, biases, and assumptions and truly immersing yourself in your partner’s world. Like Gottman says, “One of the most powerful things you can do is be a great listener and just be there without trying to be helpful.” This way, you create a safe space where your partner feels seen, heard, and validated.

active listening in relationships
Active listening is pausing your thoughts, biases, and assumptions and truly immersing yourself in your partner’s world.

Benefits of Active Listening

Imagine if every conversation with your partner left you feeling cherished and deeply connected. That’s the transformative power of active listening. Here’s how this magical tool can enhance your relationship:

Resolving Conflicts

Our founder and certified Gottman Therapist, Dr. Dana McNeil, says that rough patches are normal in relationships. She further says that “many couples experience similar situations and come out stronger, more connected, and more in love than ever before.” For that to happen, there must be active listening, which allows you and your partner to turn these challenging moments into opportunities for growth.

Instead of reacting defensively or retorting with an argument, active listening encourages understanding. Focusing on your partner’s viewpoint makes it easier to find common ground, de-escalate tensions, and develop constructive solutions.

Fostering Empathy

Ever wish you could take a sneak peek into your partner’s mind and understand how they truly feel? Active listening is your ticket! When you listen actively, you don’t just hear their words; you feel their emotions and understand their perspectives, which is what empathy is all about.

“To empathize with your partner at a level that creates healing and brings you closer demands your full focus on your partner’s message.” says Kyle Benson, one of Gottman Institute’s contributors. He emphasizes the need for non-defensive listening and a genuine focus on your partner’s feelings.

Strengthening Bonds

There’s something incredibly magical about feeling genuinely heard and understood. This level of attentiveness deepens trust and strengthens the bond between you and your partner.

As Dr. Dana McNeil perfectly encapsulates in a Fatherly article, “In a true partnership, you hurt when your partner hurts, and a problem for one of you is a problem for both of you.” This isn’t merely about sharing joys and sorrows; it’s about feeling a visceral connection with your partner’s emotions—their joy is your joy, and their pain is your pain. And you can only achieve this powerful emotional resonance through active listening.

5 Ways to Practice Active Listening in Your Marriage

One of the authors at The Gottman Institute, Ellie Lisitsa, captures how to practice active listening in an article entitled “The Digital Age: The First Duty of Love is to Listen.” Some of the practical ways to incorporate active listening into your daily interactions are:

1. Show Full Attention

When your partner speaks, giving them complete attention is the first step towards active listening. “Put your phone, tablet, or laptop away. You don’t need digital distractions when engaging in active listening, says Ellie Lisitsa. It’s a non-verbal cue that tells your partner, “Right now, nothing is more important to me than you and what you have to say.”

For instance, when your spouse is sharing about their challenging day, resist the urge to check your phone or sneak a peek at the TV. Instead, put everything aside for a few moments. Sit down with them, make eye contact, and listen to their concerns, showing them that their feelings matter to you.

2. Use Non-Verbal Cues

Active listening isn’t just about words; it involves your whole body. Using body language, such as nodding your head, maintaining eye contact, and using facial expressions, can demonstrate that you’re engaged in the conversation. It shows your partner that you’re not just hearing them but truly understanding and empathizing with them.

For instance, if your partner is excitedly sharing their recent achievement at work, your verbal congratulations will ring hollow if your face remains impassive. Instead, allow your excitement to reflect on your face; smile, widen your eyes, and even give a high-five.

3. Reflect and Clarify

Reflecting is about repeating or paraphrasing your partner’s words to show you understand their point. If something is unclear, don’t shy away from asking clarifying questions. This reflection and clarification process allows your partner to feel heard and valued. It also shows that you’re truly interested in understanding their perspective.

Imagine your spouse expressing their concerns about being overlooked for a promotion. Instead of jumping to problem-solving, you could say, “It sounds like you’re feeling undervalued at work because you’re being passed over for promotions. Is that what you’re saying?” Such reflection allows your spouse to elaborate, correct, or confirm their feelings, fostering deeper conversations.

4. Avoid Interrupting

Active listening requires patience. It can be tempting to jump in with your thoughts, advice, or even solutions when your partner speaks.

However, interrupting can give the impression that your thoughts are more important than your partner’s. Let them complete their thoughts before you respond.

For example, if your partner is sharing their feelings about a disagreement with a friend, resist the urge to interject with your own opinions or experiences. Let them fully express their thoughts and feelings. This conveys respect for their viewpoints and reinforces that their feelings are valid.

5. Respond Thoughtfully

After your partner has finished speaking, your response should validate their feelings and express empathy. Rather than immediately offering solutions or downplaying their feelings, take a moment to acknowledge their emotions and show understanding.

Suppose your spouse is worried about a major project. Rather than simply saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” a more thoughtful response might be, “I can see why this project is causing you stress.

You’ve tackled big tasks successfully before, and I believe you can do this, too. But let’s figure out how I can support you during this time.” This type of response validates their feelings and offers reassurance and support.

How Active Listening Can Avoid or Resolve Conflicts

Active listening is an incredibly powerful tool for avoiding and resolving conflicts. John Gottman, a leading researcher on marriage and relationships, has developed several principles that we can apply to show how active listening can play a pivotal role in ensuring healthy communication patterns. Let’s explore some of Gottman’s principles on how active listening can help:

Maintaining a ‘Soft Startup’

Gottman suggests that conversations often end on the same note they began. Starting discussions or arguments with a ‘soft startup’—an approach devoid of blame or criticism—sets the tone for a more constructive conversation.

Active listening enables this by allowing you to understand your partner’s perspective and frame your responses in a non-confrontational manner. Focusing on listening and understanding your partner instead of blaming them makes you more likely to resolve relationship conflicts, leading to a stable union.

active listening in relationships soft startup
Start discussions with a ‘soft startup’ to set the tone of a more constructive conversation.

Practicing ‘Turning Towards’ Your Partner

Gottman’s groundbreaking studies paved the way for the development of the Sound Relationship House. The third level of the Sound Relationship House is ‘Turn Towards Instead of Away.’ How does this ‘Turn Towards Instead of Away’ concept connect with active listening and conflict resolution?

It underscores the importance of acknowledging and responding positively to your partner’s attempts to engage or connect—what Gottman refers to as ‘bids.’ A bid could be a simple request for attention, a deeper emotional need, or an attempt to start a conversation.

You become more attuned to your partner’s ‘bids by actively listening.’ You can understand their implicit needs and emotions and respond to them in a way that makes them feel heard and valued. This fosters a stronger emotional connection and reduces the potential for misunderstandings or feelings of neglect, both common triggers for conflicts.

Maintaining the 5:1 Ratio

Gottman’s 5:1 ratio principle advocates for five positive interactions for every negative one in a relationship. Active listening significantly contributes to this balance. It’s a positive interaction, showing your partner you value and respect their viewpoint.

This builds a reservoir of goodwill and positivity, making your relationship more resilient during conflicts. If a disagreement arises, this positive cushion helps prevent the conflict from escalating, encouraging a resolution instead.

Seek Professional Help

Active listening is more than just hearing—it’s about engaging, empathizing, and truly understanding your partner. Incorporating this powerful tool into your daily interactions can deepen your bond, help you navigate conflicts effectively, and foster a more fulfilling relationship.

Are you feeling stuck in your relationship or just need a little guidance to navigate through it? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at The Relationship Place. Our approach to therapy breaks from conventional stereotypes, offering innovative solutions tailored to your unique needs.

We provide an environment where you’ll find empathy, support, and fresh perspectives to help tackle your challenges. Remember, seeking a helping hand for your relationship is okay—it’s a sign of strength, not weakness. Talk to us today and let’s discuss how you can keep a better relationship with your partner.

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