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Love & Sex

Listening? 3 Ways to Do It Better

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One of the great things about a long-term relationship is the way you grow to understand your partner like no one else can. Communication becomes easy as you share experiences and learn each others' moods and patterns of conversation. By the time you can finish each others' sentences, you're pretty much set, right?

Hold the phone! While familiarity is great, it's also important to make sure those lines of communication stay fresh. Any relationship — friends, family, colleagues — can benefit from a review of listening skills; when it comes to a romantic relationship, it's especially important to remain aware of what the other person is really trying to say.

Do you sometimes find yourself waiting to speak instead of truly listening to your partner? I can certainly act this way — and so can many other people I know.

And, so, it was such a sanity-saver to come across the teachings of Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., authors of many books, including the bestselling "Getting the Love You Want." When my now-husband and I started dating, we attended one of their workshops and learned about listening consciously.

These three tips capture my greatest takeaways from their teachings. Their simple yet challenging lessons have helped me calm worked-up co-workers, handle family members talking about politics, and stay in tune with my primary love relationship.

1) Shhh.

In Hendrix's and Hunt's main listening exercise (which they call the Imago Dialogue), you take turns speaking and listening. When you're the listener, don't interrupt, even if it's to show how well you're hearing; "uh-huh's," "gotcha's," and constant nodding generally don't encourage open expression. It might be challenging to let those habits go, but remember that the key is to listen — not fix or correct.

Do you feel a great big "BUT," whether it's to defend yourself or correct your partner? Take a breath and stay present. Your only job is to maintain gentle eye contact and soak in the words. Send your ego on a long errand.

2) Reflect.

Since a lot of relationship conflict boils down to people not feeling like they've been heard, mirroring can be balm for the soul. After someone has spoken, try something like: "I hear that you're saying …" and summarize. It doesn't have to be verbatim, but it does need to be respectful and compassionate — no snarky quotation marks allowed. Then: "Did I get that?" She'll correct you as needed, and you'll re-word until it's right. On the fly in life you can do this more discreetly. Often kindly, succinctly summarizing someone's argument instantly diffuses tension and opens the door to greater connection.

3) Validate.

We all crave to be understood, liberated from worry that we're crazy for feeling the way we do. So as the listener, put yourself in the speaker's sneakers. After mirroring, say, "What you've said makes sense to me." And figure out how it does— even if you disagree! Maybe like this: "Because you were the oldest in your family and had to take care of everyone, me not thanking you for making dinner feels hurtful. That makes sense."

Like anything else in relationships and life, listening is a skill — one you'll need to awkwardly practice over and over, until hearing without waiting becomes your default. Most of us want more than anything to be heard and validated, making true listening — to your spouse, your boss, your best friend — possibly the most valuable gift you can give.

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