Learn to Become a Better Listener

You may think you're really listening when your spouse, child, or friend is talking to you. You may even look as if you're hearing every word. But the truth is (yes, admit it!), you often tend to zone out and not really focus on what the other person is saying.

Really giving your full attention to another person can be difficult, but it can go a long way toward promoting trust and respect.

"When you genuinely listen to your partner or another person, it is an act of empathy," says Lauren Mackler, author of Solemate. "It shows a willingness to step out of your shoes and into the other person's."

If you are not really mentally there when someone close to you is speaking to you, it can be upsetting for the person, says Gilda Carle, Ph.D. "When you don't give someone your full attention, it can be interpreted as that you don't care," she explains.

Here, some strategies for starting to really listen, not just look like you're listening.

For a spouse or partner: If you're feeling really angry at the other person and don't want to listen to whatever he has to say, close your eyes and imagine him as a small child. "Try to put yourself in his shoes and really to tune in to what he is thinking," Carle says.

Paying close attention to your spouse when he talks shows that the two of you are emotionally connected, Carle says. "Listening to your spouse 100 percent with your whole body is one of the keys to fidelity," Carle says. "The minute a mate feels that his partner is not listening to him anymore, he interprets this as that she doesn't care about him anymore. You want to show him that he is the center of attention, so look into his eyes and really hold one another's gaze."

When couples go for counseling about their sex life, often the first task at hand is to work on listening to one another, says Mary Jo Rapini, M Ed, LPC, co-author of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex or Whatever. "Sex becomes routine without good listening," she says. "A couple's sex life can be enhanced when both partners ask for guidance and then listen to what their partner suggests as a way to intensify the experience for them."

When you and your partner are having a conversation, turn off your phone and make eye contact, advises Rapini.

"Tell him, 'I am here for you and I want to hear what you are going to say,'" she says. "That is a powerful message."

You should listen closely enough that when your partner is finished, you can tell him what he just said, Rapini says. "But active listening is not mimicking," Rapini says. "You should be able to repeat back not just what you heard, but the feelings that went along with it." 

For a friend: Keep in mind that most people find it hard to sit and give their full attention to someone for very long, Carle says. "Most listeners drop in and out and are looking for key buzzwords to pick up," she explains. "It's easy for other things to get in the way—you need to go pick up someone, or you left water boiling on the stove."

Pretend that you are a journalist trying to get information from a source for a story you are writing. "You have to listen very intently if you are trying to get information," Carle says. "You need to listen so you won't miss any key points."

For a child: How many times have you appeared to be listening as your child told a story about something that happened to him that day - when really you were thinking about what to make for dinner or how to respond to a work colleague's email? Maybe your child even called you on it−and then you felt guilty.

It's tough to focus on what your kid has to say when you're having a bad day. To make it easier, make a concerted effort to clear your mind so you'll be receptive to what your child has to say. Sit down beside him or facing him, and make eye contact.

If the conversation you are having may end in an argument, don't start mentally planning your rebuttal before your child is even finished having his say. Consciously focus on his statements, and then formulate a response once he's done talking.

Parents whose parents really listen to them actually build a better self-esteem, says Rapini. "You want your children to understand that you are really interested in what they have to say," she says. "This means not just nodding your head, but asking your child questions related to what they are saying."

Mary Jo Rapini,  M Ed, LPC, reviewed this article.