“How can I have a better connection to my romantic partner, friends, classmates, and family members?”“How should I handle the drama and conflicts in my relationships?”
How often do you ask these questions? We all want to be heard–and for others to understand where we’re coming from. . . But, in order for this to happen, we need to show the other person that we are trying to hear and understand them. Active listening can help you to connect more effectively with others. And, knowing how to say what you mean in a way that others can understand will minimize misunderstandings in a relationship.
The process of listening, clarifying, and encouraging the speaker lets the other person know that you are engaged in what they are saying and trying to understand his/her points.
- Eye Contact – Occasional eye contact can be an important way to communicate to the other person that we are paying attention and that we care. Otherwise, the speaker may think that we are bored or not listening. At the same time, there are different cultural standards for eye contact; it can help to take your cues from the other person.
- Non-Verbal Signals – Sit or stand in a comfortable position facing the speaker. Our voice expressions (e.g., tone, volume, rhythm) all show the feeling in our words. Be aware of other non-verbals. For example, how might a speaker interpret a listener who is smiling and nodding versus one who has her arms crossed and is fidgeting? Try to match your non-verbal communication with your words.
- Paraphrase – Repeat back in your own words what you think the other person just said. This lets the speaker know that you understood what s/he just said. It also gives the other person an opportunity to clarify anything that wasn’t clear. Common ways to paraphrase are: “What I heard you say is. . .” “What happened was. . . “
- Reflect Feelings – This is similar to a paraphrase but the focus is on feelings conveyed directly or indirectly by the speaker. For example, if someone is talking very quickly about how stressed and overwhelmed they feel during Finals Week, you might say “Wow, it sounds like you’re feeling really stressed out!” even if the person hasn’t used those exact words.
- Ask Questions – If there is something you don’t understand, asking the other person gives them a chance to reflect and correct the misunderstanding. In fact, getting things “wrong” can sometimes take the conversation to the next level. Clarifying questions show that you are an active and interested listener. Open-ended questions encourage the speaker to elaborate. In general, try to avoid yes/no questions and ask open-ended questions, such as: “Could you tell me about a specific situation when you had difficulty talking to your professor?” “What is frustrating about your living situation?”
- Show Empathy – Keep in mind that we are all doing the best we can, given our abilities, resources and past experiences. You don’t have to agree in order to empathize. Perhaps your best friend is heartbroken because she was dumped by her partner. You may actually think that your friend is better off without the partner, but you can still empathize with your friend. Most likely, you can draw on an experience where you have felt hurt and rejected, and empathize with your friend.
WHAT TO DO IN AN ARGUMENT/DISAGREEMENT
In the midst of an argument or disagreement, many of us just want to lash out at the other person and tell that person exactly what we’re thinking and feeling! Or, we may want to just withdraw and sulk by ourselves. Neither method is effective in getting the other person to hear what we’re trying to say, or resolving the issue that’s upsetting us. Here are some things to try instead:
- Delay Your Reactions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Give yourself time to process what was said and understand the speaker’s feelings before you respond. Wait until you have all the information before you make assumptions.
- Use “I” Statements. “I” statements help to express your own feelings, attitudes and desires. Using these types of messages will avoid putting the other person on the defensive. Saying statements such as “I am frustrated…” allows you to express your feelings without criticizing the other person.
- Don’t Make Generalizations. Be specific and focus on this particular issue. Perhaps your boyfriend said that he was going to stop by your place after work and you’ve been waiting around for the past two hours. Refrain from saying: “I’m sick of how you always take me for granted. You’re selfish and inconsiderate!” Stick to this particular situation and how it upset you. You might say something like: “I’m really annoyed because I’ve been waiting around for you and I turned down another invitation for this evening. If you were going to be late, I wish you had called to let me know.”
- Avoid “Always” and “Never.” This is related to not making generalizations. Be aware of the tendency to say “always” or “never.” It detracts from the specific situation and makes the immediate problem even bigger; it may also make the other person defensive.
- Refrain from Silent Counter-Arguments. You may find that when you’re in the middle of an argument, you stop listening to the other person, and, instead, begin to formulate counter-arguments. When neither person is listening, and both sides are just figuring out what to say next, communication is not happening and the problem is not being addressed.
- Respect Difference. There are a lot of ways to do things; often, conflicts are about a difference in style (e.g., one person likes to talk about feelings and the other doesn’t). When difference can be acknowledged respectfully, then compromises can be reached.