What Active Listening Can Do For Your Relationship

Maude: We recently participated in a course for couples at our local Adult Education center. It’s fun to interact with a group of couples discussing and sharing their direct experience. One of the techniques for listening that the instructor had the participants try was what is called “mirroring”. This is where you listen attentively to what is being said to you and then repeat back to the person what you have heard before commenting. This is a great technique for learning to pay attention to the person speaking. It helps you to be quiet and hear what is being said, as well as preventing you from being in your head preparing what your response is going to be.

This technique is a great step towards real active listening, but it is just a station along the way. When you are really listening, you are paying attention to the whole person. You are hearing the language of their body, their expressions, and their heart speaking to you. Even with mirroring, although you are hearing what the person is saying to you, you are also busy in your mind remembering what they said so you can repeat it back. You are to a certain extent busy with the future rather than the present.

The type of active listening that we find critical to peaceful relating creates an experience of union between those participating. For this deeper connection to occur, it is necessary to approach your partner with “empty mind”. You must come to the exchange with total presence, offering yourself in both parts of the exchange – listening and communicating. When you are truly present you can hear and absorb all that the other offers. It is through this kind of exchange that you will be able to find mutual solutions.

When both people are fully present an almost magical exchange takes place, and out of the ideas and longings of each of the parties a new idea or solution presents itself. This product of your co-creativity is not the thought or desire of either party; it is a merging that presents something neither of you could have come up with alone. This mutuality is created in the union of give and take that occurs when both are fully present with each other.

It is there that peace is born.

In active listening, approach your partner with “empty mind” & total presence #quote #relationships Click To TweetPhil: We write our books and blogs based on the direct experiences of our relationship, and when we were exploring how we resolved differences without arguing, we saw that one part was listening to the other person and trying to hear what they had to say, rather than preparing a response. We called this “active listening,” and only later discovered that the term was in common use, but included an extra aspect called “mirroring” where the listener repeats back what (s)he heard to ensure an accurate understanding.

Fine, we thought. This is just what we do, with some feedback glued on. It sounds like a great technique for ensuring concordance.

But it’s not. Far more is being communicated than just the words.

Eye contact, head movements, gestures with the arms and hands, posture, facial expression, distance from another speaker, noises such as clearing the throat, loudness and softness, high pitch and low pitch, the real or pretended quaver that accompanies emotion – all communicate singly, together and in concert with language. The live voice, insists the Hungarian linguist Ivan Fónagy, is a world apart from the printed page. Every spoken word or phrase conveys meanings that are not present in the words: anger, affection, inquiry, displeasure, reassurance, uncertainty, restraint, haughtiness, submission, authority – ‘moods’ and ’emotions’ which have to be signaled and detected if people are to know how to deal with one another. “Language – The Loaded Weapon” Dwight Bolinger

The problem with mirroring is that it encourages attention on the words and requires mental effort to remember or summarize them in preparation for repeating them back. It takes you out of the present because you are preparing for the future.

Instead, active listening is about opening yourself up to the full bandwidth of the message. Just as the speaker may not be fully conscious of all the nuances that Bolinger describes, so may the listener not be fully able to articulate them, but they can be received and understood all the same. This is empathy in action. It consists of being present and being open – what the Buddhists call “empty mind.” When practiced fully by both people, it can, on occasion, lead to a shared consciousness – a mind meld, if you will.

Listening like this is not restricted to couples. Your family, your checkout clerk, your boss – they’re all broadcasting across the spectrum, and language is just one channel. To hear it all, you must put your ego aside and just be present.

Here’s another post that we’ve written about active listening.

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7 comments on “What Active Listening Can Do For Your Relationship
  1. Maude says:

    From: Marguerite Borchers
    Thanks to you both for sending your newsletter and spreading peace, one person at a time. ; ~}

    • Maude says:

      Hi Margie, so glad that you are enjoying the newsletter and that you understand our intention so well.
      Phil and Maude

  2. Jinjee says:

    I love these concepts. I’m eager to start mirroring and then on to more advanced active listening.

  3. mae says:

    So true! Active listening really helped my husband and I – he’s a solver, and I’d get frustrated with him when I was just trying to process/vent. Active listening has really curbed his tendency to try to solve everything, and it’s curbed my tendency to read into everything he says, too. 😉

    • Maude says:

      Hi Mindy,
      You bring up an experience that many of the couples we have talked with recount. Things become so different when we listen with nothing in mind but hearing our partner and understanding what they share. The getting the actual communication is so much better than either partner trying to become a mind reader. We also find that when it comes to mutual solutions, active listening is critical to producing a new idea that has come from the input of both of you, but is different and usually more than either one has come up with alone.

    • Phil says:

      I was like that in my first marriage, and never got it. “I’ve got problem [X].” “Oh, why don’t you unplug it and plug it back in / Tell her to label her ketchup / Change the subject when he starts talking like that.”
      Men used to take on / be given the role of fixing things (the Honeydoo list) and keeping the practical side of life running, and in turn, women were responsible for emotional connection. We’re all now much more conscious of this, and things are changing, thank goodness.

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