How to Deepen Intimacy through the Power of Empathic Listening
A frequent complaint of the couples I work with is that one or both partners feel the other is no longer really listening. Learn about the different levels of listening that occur in relationships and discover the listening skills you and your partner will need to deepen intimacy and create a stronger union.
"I hate having to compete with the TV or computer for my husband's attention. He used to be such a wonderful listener. I feel like I'm not important enough to him anymore." ~Jennifer
"It's really frustrating. I'll tell my girlfriend something and by the next day, she's forgotten what I said. I've given up trying." ~Marcel
The Importance of Listening in Marriage
Speaking is easy. The real challenge for couples is listening.
The skill of effective listening is endangered.
A frequent complaint of the couples I work with is that one or both partners feel the other is no longer attentive or really paying attention. When in-depth listening is lost, the fall-out is significant: one or both partners might feel marginalized; there may be increased conflict, lingering resentments, or emotional withdrawal; in severe cases, intimacy might break down completely or the couple may feel deep despair or a loss of hope.
The mutual understanding that comes from real listening is essential for your relationship to evolve.
Like a muscle that requires exercise, your listening skills need to be worked on and regularly used for best results. Many couples mistakenly assume that listening should be a natural part of love and require little effort.
The first step in becoming a really good listener is to learn about the different kinds of listening skills. While the following list isn't exhaustive, it’s a good place to start in figuring out what kind of listener you are (or what kind of listener you'd like become).
This is the type of listening that occurs in many social settings. A minimum of attentive energy is required. For instance, the cashier asks, "Hi, how are you?" and you automatically respond, "Fine, how about you?" Here you listen just enough to know how to respond in a socially sanctioned and appropriate way.
When you're listening in surface mode, you have little investment in the speaker's feelings or opinions. You may end up being a surface listener in your relationship for a variety of reasons: distraction, feeling overwhelmed, anger at your partner, and indifference and/or hopelessness about your relationship can all result in surface listening. When you've totally forgotten that your wife asked you to pick up milk after the gym, you were probably listening at a surface level (if you were listening at all).
At this level, you realize that the speaker will require or ask something from you. Here your goal is mainly to follow-through on what is being asked of you. While this level requires more attentive energy than surface listening, you can still be preoccupied and emotionally distant throughout the conversation and come away with the gist of what is being asked of you. When you are flying out the door in the morning and you acknowledge that it's your turn to pick up the twins from daycare, you're in the action-oriented mode of listening.
In attentive listening, the speaker has gained your genuine interest. Here you are more fully present for your partner and the message sent has an impact on you—either because the person sending the message is important to you or the message itself is of interest. Most -- if not all -- of your mental energy is given to your spouse/partner when you listen at this level. When you and your partner reach this level of listening, you will share a heightened sense of being heard, understood and valued. These are the ingredients that will allow intimacy to grow.
Empathic listening is the deepest form of listening you can achieve. At this level, you leave your own subjective experience and begin to feel what it must be like to be your spouse or partner in a particular moment. Empathic listening requires several skills that must be practiced:
~The ability to place your own opinions, issues and agendas on hold;
~Remaining open to the full experience of your partner, even when your typical reactions differ from what your partner is going through.
Most couples bounce
between all these levels of listening and each level has a place in your
relationship. Different circumstances require different levels of listening: It
isn't necessary or helpful to move into empathic listening when your husband called
to say he's running late, while surface listening is problematic when your wife
is affectionately and sincerely saying, "You're the best thing that ever
happened to me." Knowing which level of listening is required is both an
art and a skill.
The challenge for you is to work on your attentive and empathic listening skills (even if you're convinced that your partner is perpetually stuck at the surface or action-oriented level). Whether you choose to work on your listening skills alone or with your spouse/partner, remember that all skills require effort and persistence before they become a habit.
To discover other ways to create a deeper, more intimate relationship visit www.StrengthenYourRelationship.com and sign up for Dr. Nicastro’s free Relationship Toolbox Newsletter.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a relationship and intimacy coach with fifteen years experience helping individuals and couples live more fulfilling lives. Dr. Nicastro's relationship advice has appeared on television, radio and in national magazines.