Relationship Help: 3 steps to becoming a better listener

“You never listen to me…I’ve asked you a thousand times to let me know when you can’t pick the kids up from daycare!”

In my work with couples, it is common to hear one person accuse the other of “not listening.” This usually takes the following form:

1. You ask your partner to do something that is important to you;

2. For a period of time your partner follows-through on your request;

3. At some point your partner becomes less consistent in his/her follow-through;

4. Your partner’s inconsistency increases until there is no trace that you’ve ever made a request;

5. Steps 1-4 are repeated and frustrations mount.

Relationship Problems: A lack of message adhesiveness

It’s a simple fact: you (and your partner) have a limited ability to hold onto information—and our fast-paced, hectic, information-overload world just adds to the dilemma. What does this mean to your relationship? If you listen to thirty different things throughout the course of your day, you may only remember five of them a week later. Some information is more adhesive and more likely to stick in your memory, whereas other information will enter your mind one moment and seem to mysteriously vanish the next.

Because of this fact, your goal as the listener is to increase the adhesiveness of your partner’s message so the information becomes a permanent entry in your mental Rolodex.

It is the responsibility of both the speaker and listener to increase the chances that communication brings about the desired outcome. So whether you are making a request or being asked to do something, there are steps you can take to increase the likelihood that your message will both hit the mark and remain in place.

3 ways for you (as the listener) to increase message adhesiveness:

1. Ask for clarification about a request

Asking for clarification serves several important purposes: It helps you get a better sense of what the speaker needs and at the same time it sends the message that you are interested and want to understand what your partner has to say.

This will make your partner feel that you are fully engaged in the dialogue.

2. Translate the message/request into concrete action steps

As the listener, you need to take the words being directed at you and use them to shape your behavior in a new way. When your partner needs something from you (whether it is to “communicate more”; “listen better”; “be more responsible”), in essence you are being asked to do something different: to either add a new behavior that is absent or stop a behavior that is unwelcome…or both.

So each message you hear should lead you to think about the specific behavior change you need to make in order to fulfill your partner’s request.

3. Rehearse and build on your partner’s message

As the listener, one of your jobs is to make sure the request gets stored on your mental hard-drive and that you have permanent and easy access to the information. You don’t want to continuously fail in the all-important department of reliable follow-through because it keeps slipping your mind. The “I forgot” excuse gets old fast.

One way to increase your follow-through is to rehearse the essential part of your partner’s message. All rehearsal involves repetition. You repeat the message (either to yourself or out loud) over and over again until it becomes more adhesive. This is how people prepare for interviews; how actors memorize movie scripts; how teachers learn the lesson plans they teach; how students learn new information.

Another way to bolster message adhesiveness is to write down what you need to remember. There are two ways this is helpful:

a. You can write reminders to yourself as a memory aide;
b. You can rehearse the message by repeatedly writing it.

Messages are more likely to be remembered when they are personalized—you do this by building and expanding on your partner’s message.

For instance, if you agree to work on becoming a “better listener,” you can tell yourself: “I want to be the best spouse I can, so I will work on being more attentive while listening” or “When I really listen to my partner, s/he feels understood and cared for, so it’s a win-win for us both. I will make it a top priority.”

Notice how in each of these examples, rather than simply repeat what your partner needs from you, you expand on the message in a way that makes your follow-through more personal and meaningful—after all, don’t you want to be the best spouse/partner you can possibly be? And don’t you want to create win-win situations?