The following is a short and sweet overview of Dr. Gottman’s skills for Active Listening*. For much more on the subject, make sure to get your hands on a copy of his highly acclaimed book, The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships.
Whether or not you consider yourself to already be a skilled active listener, tune in to the tips below. Though they seem very easy to implement in theory, in reality they are almost impossible to implement simultaneously. We don’t expect you to. However, making an effort to keep them in mind is of tantamount importance in a Digital Age whose distractions make it far too easy to lose touch. Regardless of your current level of proficiency in active listening, being conscious of your role in conversations in the context of the following skills can turn your relationships around:
Focus on being interested, not interesting. This seems to be a very common piece of wisdom, probably because so many people have found it so useful. According to Dr. Gottman, Dale Carnegie’s advice in his 1937 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People was on point: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” So often we get caught up in what we are saying and forget to listen to others. When we give our friends, lovers, relatives, and coworkers our time and attention by listening to their detailed thoughts and feelings, we make them feel valued and appreciated. Isn’t that what we all want? Apply this advice to your life liberally and try not to be stunned by the difference it makes.
Start by asking questions. Not too specific (one-word answers don’t open up a conversation!) and not too open-ended (“How’s it going” often receives a formulaic, insincere, or meaningless response such as “Great,” which clearly doesn’t reflect what the person is thinking). Try: “What stressors are you currently facing at work?” or “How do you think we should celebrate the cat’s birthday this year?”
Ask questions about people’s goals and visions of the future. They will probably have something interesting to say. It is likely that they will appreciate you for asking and you will appreciate them for their answer.
Look for commonalities. Here are Dr. Gottman’s words on the subject: “People are attracted to those with whom they have things in common, so make it a point to let others know when you share similar views or backgrounds. At the same time, don’t try to make yourself the focus of conversation. Say enough to establish common ground and empathize, but always remember to share the floor.”
Tune in with all your attention. Really listening can be really hard, especially if you have a tendency to spend the time the other person is talking carefully planning out the next thing you are going to say (If you have this tendency, you are not alone). While it is natural to be distracted by the thoughts flying through your head, to really participate in a conversation means to intentionally abandon the urge to engage in two parallel monologues. What can you do to get out of the habit? Try to follow the other person’s train of thought – travel with them as it moves through the landscape of their mind. As your travels arrive at points that stimulate your natural curiosity, show sincere interest in a way that feels genuine. Ask questions when you reach intriguing junctures!
Respond with an occasional brief nod or sound. A verbal cue such as “mm-hmm” or “yeah” lets the speaker know that you’re paying attention and are interested in what they are saying.
From time to time, paraphrase what the speaker says. This serves two purposes: First, it lets the speaker know that you’re tuned in. Second, it gives you the opportunity to clarify what they’ve said. Paraphrasing when you ask a question is often a good idea, and can look like this: “You said that you were looking into renovating Sarah’s old dollhouse to fit in a rec room for the cat. Why do you think this is a good idea?”
Maintain the right amount of eye contact. Too little eye contact can communicate disinterest, nervousness, or lack of confidence, while too much (staring) can communicate intrusiveness or hostility. Allow the speaker to meet your eye, don’t be afraid to look at each other, and keep in mind that holding eye contact for more than a few seconds with a smile can be construed as flirtation. Many books have been written about this. To learn much more about verbal and nonverbal emotional communication, check out Dr. Gottman’s books!
Let go of your own agenda. Instead of trying to direct the flow of conversation, giving advice, trying to solve the speaker’s problems (or feeling overwhelmed and unintentionally minimizing or denying negative feelings they communicate), just be there. If the conversation turns to intense emotional issues and we want to help, many of us jump into the role of rescuer – but the truth is that individuals are best helped by being given the room to speak their feelings and discover the answers to their questions and solutions to their problems themselves. The greatest gift you can give to a friend or lover or family member struggling with difficult life problems is not your opinion but your warm presence and a listening ear. The best thing you can do is to convey the following message: “I understand how you’re feeling right now.” In Dr. Gottman’s words, “Although we can’t eliminate all the pain life presents our friends and loved ones, we can offer one another immeasurable support in difficult times simply by listening in authentic, empathetic ways.”
Turn off the TV and digital distractions. This one should be self-explanatory.
Think about these tips often.
*Please note: This post on active listening is meant to share the importance of communicating curiosity and attention in conversations with your partner, friends, and family, and to serve as a basic guide to expressing this interest with verbal and nonverbal cues. As discussed in “Myth vs. Reality: Debunking Relationship Dos and Dont’s,” communicating using active listening skills in attempting to reach conflict resolution will not save your relationship! As Dr. Gottman explained in an interview with Psychotherapy.net, when you are experiencing conflict, “real empathy comes from going: ‘You know, I understand how upset you are. It really hurts me that I’m messing up this way, and I’ve got to take some action.’ Real empathy comes from feeling your partner’s pain in a real way, and then doing something about it.”