They say that active listening is the key to great relationships, but what can that possibly mean? Certainly paying attention to your partner when they speak is important, but is that really the key to a great partnership? Yes and no.

Relationships have tons of moving parts, but at the core most people want the same thing: to be loved for exactly who they are. The question is how do people come to feel loved?

When we listen we rarely hear the emotional content, even though it makes up a large portion of what is being communicated between partners. Underneath the presenting issue is a message about what someone wants to feel when he or she hears your response. Here are some examples:

Your partner says:

When I get home from work I’d love it if we could spend some time together. It’s been a long day of meetings and I’m feeling a little raw. You know how critical everyone can be.

What your partner means on an emotional level:

The people in my meetings today really got in my head. I’m feeling insecure (upset, angry, hurt, etc.) and want to be around you because you make me feel safe. Will you soothe my insecurity when we get home?

Your partner says:

I don’t like going to your parents’ house because I often feel uncomfortable. Someone always says something that gets my hackles up and you seem to weigh in on both sides. I don’t know where I fit in.

Your partner means:

At your parents house it seems like you revert to being their child, or at the very least you abstain from taking sides when they disagree with me. As an outsider, this makes me feel abandoned by you. If you bring me into an uncomfortable situation I would like it if you could run some defense. I would feel like you value our relationship if you’d be loyal to me sometimes.

In these examples you can see that the emotional undertone is far more serious and pressing than the outward content. Not noticing these cues tends to escalate innocent conversations into fights. With practice (and the cooperation of your partner) you can begin trying out your skills at decoding the underlying messages in your conversations.

The key to mastering this skill is to keep in mind a few points:

  • Be patient. No one taught you to communicate this way. It’s going to take practice.
  • Test out your theory and have your partner redirect you along the way. This sounds like, “I am wondering if you are angry because I don’t show loyalty to you at my parents’ house?” Response: “Kind of. I would like your loyalty, but I’m not angry. I am kind of hurt.”
  • Realize this is a vulnerable way of speaking so you need to treat it with some reverence. This is not the time to joke around or be sarcastic.
  • Notice how things are different at the end of the conversation. Chances are you will feel closer to your partner. Feel free to thank him/her and reinforce this healthy intimacy with a kind word or a hug.

If you are in doubt, try to put yourself in his or her shoes. Active listening isn’t about hearing your partner better; it’s about understanding what they really mean. Most humans experience feelings similarly, and you already know a lot about how your partner perceives the world. You are in the perfect position to become curious about her or his point of view. Communicating that you get it, and are willing to help, is all any of us usually need to hear to feel loved.

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