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You Need to Balance Talking and Listening


There’s more to active listening than usually gets discussed.

We bumped up against this recently, while working on a Secret Project. We were talking, and both of us felt interrupted by the other. We’ve occasionally had this experience of being interrupted by the other person before completing the point we were trying to make. We’ve objected, pushed to complete the idea, then moved on. These events haven’t left scars because we don’t work like that, but we have become sensitive to such interruptions.

Since we know so deeply that we want the same things, and neither of us is interested in combative exchanges, we stopped the discussion and turned our process on the experience we were having instead.

We both understand and practice active listening with each other, so what was going on? What we turned up in our processing are some aspects of active listening and hearing each other, that are not often considered.

There are of course different kinds of exchanges and they call for different behaviors.

Wanting to be Heard

Phil was in a relationship where his partner would tell of her troubles and he would respond with suggestions, but that wasn’t really what was needed. Instead, she wanted to express her feelings, and who wants their feelings to be cut short in the middle? The goal is to be heard, not to get anything fixed or even commented upon. This is a common male-female dynamic, as men see themselves as (or have been cast as) fixers and problem solvers.

When this pattern arises, both people can contribute to fixing it. When listening, be sensitive to the needs of your partner, but as the speaker, be explicit about your needs. Share right up front what you are and aren’t looking for. This saves much frustration and gets you the kind of attention and listening you need.


This is a jamming session where you are sharing free-flowing ideas, and you both just throw them out (usually writing them down to cull later) with no discussion or reaction. The goal in this type of exchange is to get as many ideas down from both of you as you can, so you have a large creative field from which to further develop something. In this style of sharing there is no real active listening called for (except as it stimulates more ideas) as you are both just adding as many diverse concepts as you can.

Exchanging Ideas

We have written about the importance of active listening – of paying attention to what the other person is saying, rather than working on preparing a response. As we have written, “Actually listen, rather than waiting for the moment when you can talk again about why your opinion is the correct one.”

Although this is ideal, the reality is that responses and ideas come up as the other person is speaking and it can be a considerable effort to both hold on to those thoughts and continue to follow the speaker. We all know what that feels like, and how much less we hear of what our partner says when we are holding on to our thoughts and waiting our turn to speak them.

And yet, how can we avoid this situation? When we are actively seeking solutions, decisions or plans, we are excited. We get ideas from listening that are compelling and important to say. How do we keep the exchange going, and not step out of the important process of hearing our partner, while still being able to share the ideas as they come forth?

Stay connected! Stay aware of each other!

Sound simple? It is once you become aware of it, and yet it is so infrequently practiced. We tend to stay in our own minds when describing a thought or idea. We pay less attention to our partner when we are the speaker. Active listening must have both sides – speaker and listener – aware of each other at all times. Sense if your partner has something to say that fits in, and interrupt your speaking or cut short the length to allow their thoughts to enter. Both parties have to find a balance between expression and reception. Both parties have equal roles in maintaining this balance.

Who cares what the resolution is if you both feel separated or estranged at the end of it? Remain aware that this is a process the two of you are sharing – you are going somewhere together. The most important part of the discussion is the experience you are having together, not the end result. When you have this kind of experience, it is such a delicious pleasure, that it will produce answers born of this closeness.

Just the act of staying aware of each other and remaining connected through it all will completely change the dynamic. Remember, have fun with your interactions. After all, the real purpose is to find mutuality, to feel connected, heard, seen and loved.

We love your comments! Leave them on our blog here. Check out Phil reading this, too.


1. Cultural differences can play into this. For example, Deborah Tannen writes “many Californians expect shorter pauses than many midwesterners or New Englanders, so in conversations between them, the Californians end up interrupting.” (Her book on language differences is a must-read.)

2. When talking, we (Maude and Phil) usually sit side by side with our forearms touching. It feels as though this way, a significant amount of communication occurs non-verbally.

Successful Relationship Reading Corner

BookshelfIn this week's blog, we wrote about the need to balance talking and listening. We didn't find any discussions about this balance, but here are some good links on active listening.

Active Listening: The Art of Empathetic Conversation "It is time to focus again and practise the skill of mindful listening. Not just because we owe our full attention to others when we converse, but because the positive emotions of a truly good conversation have the potential to make us happy!"

Active Listening: The Master Key to Effective Communication "The sense that we are not being listened to is one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable. Toddlers scream about it, teenagers move out, couples split up, companies breakdown. One of the main reasons this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening (like reading, thinking clearly and focusing) is a skill which we rarely consider to be something requiring knowledge and practice."

How to Listen and Build Deeper Connections with People "We’ve never had more excuses to not listen. As technology advances and content explodes, we continue to spread our attention across multiple screens, problems, and people — often all at once. As a result, attention has become one of the scarcest resources — and one of the most valuable. People who can truly listen have a unique edge in a world fragmented by distraction."


Spreading peace one relationship at a time
Phil and Maude
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