Being a better listener is the secret to better relationship communication.
- People can build strong relationships by becoming better listeners and improving communication.
- Being a good listener involves clarifying, reflecting feelings, attending to non-verbal cues, paraphrasing, and asking open-ended questions.
- Conflict is inevitable, but its impact on a relationship depends on whether partners feel understood.
Strong relationships require good communication. Being a better communicator may sound intimidating, but it’s really as easy a building a key skill: being a good listener.
It sounds simple. We (mostly) hear our partner’s questions, comments, stories, complaints, and helpful suggestions. But how often do we truly listen? Too often we’re only superficially registering that they’re talking, waiting for our chance to jump in and say what we want. That needs to change. Everyone wants to feel heard in their relationship, your partner included. For good reason too, because research shows that being a good listener is an important social skill that nurtures social connections (Gearhart & Bodie, 2011).
Improving your listening skills starts with answering a basic question: What is the simple key to improving communication with your partner? The answer: Give a “C.R.A.P.O.”
Yes, you have to care about what the other person is saying. But C.R.A.P.O. is also a clever acronym to help you remember the five key behaviors for being a better listener:
1. Clarify – How often are you 100% perfectly clear about what your partner tells you? Probably not that often, or as often as you think. That’s not good enough. If your partner explains themselves, shares how they feel, or tells you something important, they deserve to be fully understood. No mistakes, fuzziness, or misinterpretations allowed.
To get it right you can’t rely on assumptions. To remove all doubt, just ask. Keep them talking so you can gather more information and enhance your comprehension. Along the way, your questions can also help your partner process their own thoughts and feelings. To accomplish that, we should ask things like:
- “What did you mean by ___?”
- “Am I correct that ___ is the key issue?”
- “Can you give an example of ___?”
- “When you mentioned ___, what exactly are you saying?”
2. Reflect Feelings – Ok, I have to fess up. I should have named this “empathy” but spelling out C.R.A.P.O. required an “R” so I improvised. That said, the “R” could also stand for “Really Important.” Of the five keys, reflecting feelings may be the most essential. To master empathy you need to realize that behind anything your partner communicates is an emotion they’re hoping we pick up on. Sometimes it’s super obvious (e.g., “I feel completely unappreciated around here.”). Other times it’s not clear at all, like when your partner just gives a loud sigh or says “I’m tired.”
When it’s ambiguous, don’t ignore it. Instead, give a C.R.A.P.O. by making an effort to figure it out. Dig in to identify deeper feelings and identify them as specifically as possible. Instead of saying “you sound mad” branch out to more nuanced feelings like hurt, frustration, annoyance, undervalued, or unfulfilled. If those sound hard to identify, they may be at first, but you’ll get better with practice.
It’s also ok to be wrong. Even if you’re off base, your partner sees that you’re trying, which opens the door for them to elaborate. In fact, when it comes to empathy and relationship satisfaction, research shows that effort matters more than accuracy (Venaglia & Lemay, 2019). You get points for trying.
This is what empathy or reflecting feelings looks like:
Scenario: Your partner comes home and complains about their commute.
Bad: “Sounds awful.” Or “Yeah, commuting sucks.”
Better: “You must be frustrated.”
Best: “You work so hard, that commute must be stressful and is the last thing you needed.”
3. Attending – Being a good listener isn’t just about what you say, but also how you look. Though you may spend more time worrying about finding the right things to say, you also need to attend to your nonverbal signals. Those involve anything you do that sends messages to your partner that go beyond the words you use. It’s everything you do to show your partner that you’re completely present and fully engaged. Doing so shows your partner that they’re important to us and helps us pay attention. Here are few ways to boost nonverbals:
- Sit squarely facing your partner
- Be open (e.g., no crossed arms)
- Lean slightly toward them
- Maintain eye contact (no staring at your phone or other screens)
- Have a relaxed posture (not too stiff or rigid)
4. Paraphrasing – A big part of listening is making it clear to your partner that you “get it.” To do that, you want to recap what your partner just said to you, but in your own words. This shouldn’t devolve into a word-by-word thesaurus challenge, but should be a quick summary. That isn’t easy, but your efforts are worth it because paraphrasing shows you care and are fully invested.
To really capture what your partner is saying and rephrase it, you’ll need to pay really close attention and listen intently. Not coincidentally, these are two key pieces of being a good listener. Here are some suggestions to help you with paraphrasing:
- “You’re basically saying…”
- “Sounds like…”
- “To me, it feels like…”
5. Open-ended questions – When most people talk, you’re honestly not super interested. But your partner isn’t most people. Your partner deserves more from you. Show them that you give a C.R.A.P.O. by letting your partner have the spotlight. Not only that, do everything you can to let them talk and work through their thoughts and feelings.
The easiest way to do that is by asking open-ended questions that show your partner you want to hear more. But not just any questions. You’ll want to avoid simple yes/no questions, and ones that focus on who, what, when, and where facts (though getting those right is an important part of the clarify step). Instead, pose questions that require deeper analysis. Some great options are:
- “What led you to that decision?”
- “How do you see this situation resolving itself?”
- “How did you arrive at this conclusion?”
- “What do you think led to this happening?”
- “What was their intention?”
- “If I was in a similar circumstance, what would you suggest I do?”
Every relationship has flaws. But relationship discord doesn’t have to threaten your relationship. Rather, conflict’s impact on a relationship depends on whether partners feel understood (Gordon & Chen, 2016). When someone doesn’t feel heard, conflict is harmful, but when we feel like our partner knows where we’re coming from, disharmony is less of a threat. When you use your emotional intelligence by taking the time to show your partner that you truly care about what they’re saying, they feel heard. Being a good listener is an important life skill both in and out of your relationship. But, when our partner “gets us” and we felt heard, communication improves and the relationship grows stronger.
This essay is adapted from Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them.
Gearhart, C. C., & Bodie, G. D. (2011). Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports, 24(2), 86–98.
Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I’m coming from?: Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(2), 239–260.
Venaglia, R. B., & Lemay, E. P. Jr. (2019). Accurate and biased perceptions of partner’s conflict behaviors shape emotional experience. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 3293-3312.