How To Listen Better In A Relationship
'I did say that earlier,' my wife said gently.
'Oh, really... I don't remember. Sorry.'
I was a little embarrassed... this wasn't the first time I had practiced selective hearing.
In all honesty, I need to learn how to listen better in a relationship. Well, all my relationships, really. And especially in my closest relationships.
Too often I retreat into my own personal la-la land. Over time, I've become pretty good at snapping out of it - and pretending I was listening - but... still. I need better listening skills. And, more deeply, a heart that love others as Christ has loved me.
I'm guessing you can identify with me. We live in a world where partial attention, and distraction, are the norm. But the consequences of not listening are higher than we think.
In an effort to love others well by listening better, we'll take a look at:
- The dismal statistics on listening
- God's perspective on listening
- The 3 levels of listening
- 8 practical ways you can listen better in a relationship
Let's jump right in.
Listening In Relationships: By The Numbers
We know that listening in relationships is important - and that we're not too good at it - on an instinctual level, but in case you're saying 'yeah, but...' let me share a little empirical proof with your inner attorney.
Amount of our time spent listening: 45%.
Amount of time we're distracted, or forgetful, when listening: 75%
Number of Americans who have had any formal training in listening: 2%
The #1 reason marriages actually fail? Not listening.
Okay, anyone else paying attention now?
God's Perspective: Bible Verses About Listening
Of course, listening isn't simply an issue because we do it a lot, do it poorly, or experience heartbreak when it goes awry.
God has a ton to say about it, too. It's baked into who we are, and meant to be.
These bible verses about listening are a good starting point:
- The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)
- Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19)
So, the way we listen to each other (or don't) is important. If we won't listen, we're fools... and according to Proverbs, nothing good comes from that.
But there's way more at stake.
- So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
I don't believe that, ultimately, our salvation comes from us. (Deep breath, okay?) But our relationship with God comes through listening to the gospel, the 'word of Christ'. If we won't listen, we can't have a saving relationship with God.
But the quality of our day to day relationship also depends on whether we listen to God after we're saved, too. Yes, God saves us from beginning to end, but our experience of that relationship depends largely on the extent to which we will listen to the God who established it.
- 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.' (Revelation 3:20)
Jesus offers close, personal fellowship to us if we will respond to his voice. (As an aside, this is not a verse about receiving Christ initially; in context, he's talking to the church.) We must listen, and respond with attention and trust.
So, listening is important because it's a huge part of what we do each day. It greatly shapes (and reflects) our pursuit of God, and ability to love others.
With that background, we're ready to explore the three levels of listening.
The 3 Levels Of Listening
Here's the quick breakdown.
Level 1: Not Listening
... is characterized by:
- ‘Autobiographical listening’ - as Stephen Covey put it. At this level, what we're saying is (somehow) all about us.
- ‘That makes me think of… me’ - when someone talks about their vacation, accomplishment, or struggles, we turn it back to a similar experience we've had. Or worse, minimize what the other person just shared.
- Evaluating what you’re saying before you're done speaking.
- Thinking about my response - again, while you're still sharing.
- Not really listening - it's pretty obvious that this isn't truly listening, right?
- And so, we'll probably miss key information when we listen like this.
I hate to admit it, but I've been - am - a Level 1 listener waaay too often. Especially with my kids, or, when I can multitask when the other person can't see what I'm doing. (When I'm on the phone.)
Fortunately, sometimes we do better and make it to Level 2.
Level 2: Active Listening
Level 2 listening involves...
- Listening to hear (content) - we're really hearing the words, the content, at this level, which is good. (#analysis)
- Active listening - we're not just tolerating the speaker, but proactively 'paying attention'. (Notice there's a certain cost.) For more help on developing active listening skills, check out this article.
- Not focused on our response, or, distracted - we've put our phones down and simply let the person speak, without worrying about what we'll say or how we'll come across when we speak. (This takes gospel-security.)
- Can be person-dependent - this is easier to do when we're with our boss, or, say, on a first date. The stakes are higher, and we care. But when we're bored or overly-familiar with the speaker, it's harder to give listening our all.
- Much of life. While we'll look at Level 3 listening in a moment, the truth is that much of our interactions take place at Level 2, and that's okay. We can still truly 'love our neighbor as ourselves' with this sort of effort.
Level 3: Listening To Understand
With God's help, we can still do even better, and truly care for the person in front of us (or on the phone, etc.) at a much deeper level.
Level 3 listening is characterized by:
- Listening to understand (context) - here, we're not simply listening to the actual words, but the context that's shaping them. If my wife tells me she's exhausted, knowing her job has been frustrating for a few months shapes how I hear that. It's different, for example, than if she simply hadn't gotten much sleep the night before.
- Inferences from body language, tone - Did you know that less than 10% of communication comes from the actual words that are said? It's true. Everything else comes from different cues like our intonation and 'body language. These, too, are powerful communication tools that God put in us, so as listeners we need to tune into them. [Update: a reader pointed me to additional research that suggests that the 'less than 10%' claim above is probably not true. At least in the way we're led to believe. That said, non-verbal communication is certainly a significant part of how we communicate.]
- Mismatches; what’s not said? Here, we're looking for words that may be out of alignment with the inferences we just spoke about. When someone says his day was 'fine', there may - or may not - be something else going on.
- Essential for true, one-flesh intimacy - Since most of the rich communication life we're designed for takes place beyond mere words and content, to get really close to someone we must listen at Level 3. At least some of the time.
So now that we've sketched out the 3 levels of listening, where do you live?
- ... in your closest relationships?
- ... if you had to put together a pie chart, how much space would be devoted to each level?
How To Listen Better In A Relationship: 8 Practical Ways
Clearly, we tend to spend a good bit of time at the first level, but want to spend more time at levels 2 and 3. That's where we can glorify God, love others well, and experience the full-orbed intimacy that we're designed for.
Basically, if we want great relationships, this is where we need to head.
Here are 8 ways to listen better in your relationships everyday.
1. Ask for honest feedback on your listening skills.
Here's an exercise that will take some courage. Ask 3 people who know you well what they honestly think of your ability to listen and pay attention. Try to include people from different parts of your life, like a family member, boy/girlfriend or spouse, a child, co-worker or classmate, and so on. Especially listen for common themes.
2. Be ready to accept the cost.
Listening well is hard work. There's a reason it's called 'paying attention!' Ask God for grace
3. Don't think about your response until the other person finishes speaking.
In (life) coaching, we call it 'listening through'. I can't tell you how many times I catch myself thinking about what I'm going to say, while the other person is speaking. It's probably inevitable to some extent, but suspending judgment and just listening helps us be present so that the other person experiences God's loving presence through us.
4. Identify 3 people you consider good listeners.
You probably like, or at least respect, these people a lot. Try to connect with how you feel when you're in their presence. You have the ability to give that as a gift to others as you listen to them.
5. Think about a time you didn't feel listened to.
On the other side, it's likely you can think of a moment when someone didn't listen well to you. Maybe you were sharing a struggle, or something you were excited about, and the other person didn't seem to (really) care. I know that's always hurtful to me, and probably for you, too. Connecting with those experiences can help us avoid that pattern as we listen to others.
6. Focus on your heart first.
Practical strategies are great, but we live out of our hearts, the inner part of who God has made us. 'The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.' (Luke 6:45). If we only change our strategies, we will inevitably return to poor patterns of listening. When we seek God for heart transformation first, strategies become immensely helpful.
7. Repent as necessary.
When we recognize old patterns of tuning out, we can simply ask God to forgive us, even as it's happening! And he will. But when we confess our sins, we receive more than just forgiveness; we receive new power to obey. 'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' (1 John 1:9) The word 'cleanse' is not a synonym for 'forgive' here; it means we are made new, and receive fresh power to live like Christ. Even if it's not always easy to discern.
8. Pray.Repentance, of course, is a form of prayer. But there are other forms of prayer that will help us as we listen, too. We can thank God for the victories he brings, perhaps as we really pay attention to someone who's difficult. We can also practice listening to God in silent prayer, asking him to communicate to us in words, pictures, or impressions he may want to call to mind. We must always run these through the grid of scripture, but ultimately prayer is a two-way conversation, not simply us speaking to the Lord.
God, The Perfect Listener
At the end of the day, we will not listen as we well as we ought to. God knows that, and he has covered that - along with all our shortcomings and sins - at the cross.
Thankfully, he is the perfect listener, and everyone has the opportunity to cast their anxieties on God, because he cares for them.' (1 Peter 5:7) As Peter puts it earlier in his first epistle:
'The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.' (1 Peter 3:12)
So, while we strive to become better listeners, we're covered by God's grace, and know that, even though we'll fail others, God never will.
(For more resources on listening, check out the end of the video above.)