How To Listen and Communicate Better For Stronger Relationships

4 min
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"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." - Karl Menninger

How well do you listen? For many people, this question isn’t something they would ever consider. Most assume they listen just fine. Many aren’t aware there is an entire relationship science based on how well and what we listen to, and how well we respond.  In fact, there are different levels of listening – and learning to use our ears differently may be the most effective way to persuade, connect, and build relationships. 

Below is one way to categorize how we hear and what it does to a relationship. This list goes from the least to most effective styles of listening, and the last one – Active Constructive Responding (ACR) – may surprise you. ACR is a way to respond to other people when they share information, or even experiences, with us. Not only does it teach you what to listen for in a conversation – and essentially, how to be a better listener – it also teaches you how to respond more effectively, and in a way that can even help to improve your relationships.

Styles of Listening

As we move through the worst to the best ways of listening to others, see where you typically fall on the list—and what might help you get to the next level.

  • Ignoring the listener. This might sound like a no-brainer – after all, of course, there can’t be effective communication when we ignore someone! But the truth is that many of us experience this all the time. “Phubbing”, a modern phenomenon involving technology, is just one example of how we do this: If you’ve ever been talking to someone and they have been distracted by looking at their cell phone while talking to you, then you’ve been “phubbed” (a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”). When there is no eye contact, and the person is engaged in another task as we talk, we will feel ignored. And when someone feels ignored, the relationship deteriorates.
  • Only waiting for your turn to talk.  In couples therapy we have a term for this: shoot and load. It means that when you are in a conversation with someone, you are just waiting for your turn to speak—and not really listening to what the other party has to say. This is little better than ignoring, because you are not really hearing and understanding the other person. By working on what you will say when they speak (rather than actually listening to what they are saying), you are negating what the listener is trying to communicate. Quite often, this involves interrupting someone to make your point rather than simply listening to theirs. And it’s not a very effective way to connect. 
  • Listening to the words. This is a good start. One way to let someone else know you are listening to them is to have eye contact. Nod your head as they are speaking, and summarize what you have heard them say.  The summary gives the speaker an opportunity to either affirm it as correct, or clarify it.
  • Active Listening. The goal of active listening is to build trust and establish rapport. This style of listening is a deeper engagement with what the speaker has to say. In addition to eye contact, the listener typically leans in as they nod. Active listening adds a reflection to the summary (“I’ve heard you talk about this before.”), and will paraphrase what is being said to show understanding. An active listener will also ask questions (“Can you say more about what happened?”) as a way to deepen insight into what the speaker is expressing.
  • Active Constructive Responding (ACR).  When it comes to listening better, this technique is a game changer, because it teaches you to effectively listen for and respond to specific information. It is referred to as capitalization. When we share a positive experience, like a success, with someone – and the person hearing us responds enthusiastically to this good news – this will boost positivity for both of us, and add to our well-being. Additionally, research has found that doing this strengthens the present relationship, and is correlated with future relationship commitment and satisfaction. This is Active Constructive Responding.

What makes ACR a game-changer is that the science behind it shows how even the best relationships are more deeply enhanced when there is a celebration of good news shared. When we comfort someone else’s pain, their problems, and their issues, that is only half the job of participating in a supportive relationship. And as the research shows, what helps the most for an ongoing relationship is actually when we celebrate someone’s bright side, too. This simple act of being excited for someone’s achievements allows for a deeper, stronger level of commitment and satisfaction.

Styles of Responding

Much like how there are several different styles of listening, when it comes to how we respond to people, there are also four patterns there. What makes this research so easy to adapt to our everyday lives for a successful result is that only one style of response works to strengthen relationships. Active Constructive Responding, which involves enthusiastic support for someone else’s good news – while also inviting them to relive the experience – has been shown to be the best method. An example of responding in this way is as follows: “Wow—that is great that you got the new job—tell me how they let you know about it!”. The second method is Passive-Constructive Responding, which involves showing people support in a quiet and understated way. For example, “Glad you got the job you wanted.”

On the more negative side of the picture is Active-Destructive Responding and Passive-Destructive Responding. Active-Destructive Responding is when there is a direct criticism that demeans the event, such as “Any more money you make in the new job will be taken away by being in the higher tax bracket.” And Passive-Destructive Responding, the final option, happens when the event is ignored, and quite often usurped by the listener. For instance, if one person shares good news with another about getting a new job, and the second person’s response is a completely separate one that does not even acknowledge the first fact (in this example, that could be something like, “I just bought a new car!” as a direct response to the job news), this is Passive-Destructive Responding.  

Exploring the way we listen and respond to other people isn’t only a means of improving our communication skills – it can also be a way to improve our relationships with others. Humans are social animals by nature, and research has shown that having healthy, successful relationships can improve our well-being in multiple ways. And it is when we can genuinely and enthusiastically respond to another’s good fortune that a better relationship is likely to evolve. While ACR will work with any relationship, it works particularly well in intimate relationships, by resulting in fewer daily conflicts, increasing mutual gratitude, and strengthening dedication and happiness.

Simply put, when you listen for the good things in life, the good life happens.

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Written by Dr. Dan Tomasulo, an American psychologist, writer, and professor, and the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. He is the author of Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression. Dan’s passion is positive psychology and the science of happiness, helping people focus on their strengths and cultivating their best selves so they can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Dr Dan Tomasulo

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Positive Psychology Coaching Techniques: Active Constructive RespondingWill You Be There For Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses To Positive Event Disclosures; I’m So Excited For You!” How An Enthusiastic Responding Intervention Enhances Close Relationships.

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