Back to the Basics: Improving Communication in Your Family (Part 2 of 4)

Last time you heard from me, I discussed the importance of remembering the “golden rules” we learned as children but may have forgotten or taken for granted as adults.  This often leads to hurting families and poor communication.  Today I would like to pick up where I left off by introducing Rule # 2, which, again, seems very basic, but how well do we really execute it consistently?

“Listen while others are speaking.”  I bet if I asked ten people to rate themselves on their listening skills, most would say they do a great job, but their family members would probably disagree. This doesn’t mean that we really are poor listeners in general; however, the issue is more that we don’t always do a good job of communicating that we are listening in a way that encourages the other person to really feel ‘heard’ by us  (although sometimes it is because we really aren’t listening to them).  If we just added in a couple of simple steps to our every day communication, it would make a world of difference to those in our lives. 

First of all, listening does not mean simply keeping your mouth closed while waiting for the other person to stop talking so that you can then make your point.  Even if you did hear what they have to say, but don’t respond to it directly, how will they know that you really understood if you just jump right into what you want to say?  And what motivates them to want to hear your response when they feel as though you didn’t listen to them in the first place?  Take a moment to think about what you observe in others that makes you feel like they have listened to you.  Chances are they maintained eye contact and displayed other body language that let you know they were focused on you.  Perhaps they said a few things in response to encourage your discussion (“Mmmhmm,” “Oh, how funny,” “Then what happened?” etc.) After you ensure that you are truly focused on what a person is saying to you, make sure that you show some of these signs to communicate that focus to them.

The next step is very important (particularly during arguments or if someone is experiencing an emotional reaction to something), yet is often overlooked, which is why people often feel like they aren’t being listened to completely.  In order to make someone truly feel heard and understood we need to paraphrase, reflect emotion, and validate what they have expressed. We very often skip this step because we assume that if someone is bringing a problem to us, they want us to help them fix it, so we immediately jump to problem-solving (and then get frustrated when they don’t take our advice), but usually they aren’t ready to consider solutions until they have been able to vent their emotional reactions.  Here is an example of how to do this:

Speaker: “My boss is always giving me a hard time about my sales, and I just don’t know how to please her anymore.”
Listener: “She’s pretty tough on you, huh?” (paraphrase)
Speaker: “Tough isn’t even close! She has unrealistic expectations of me all the time!”
Listener: “That sounds very frustrating and discouraging, trying to please someone like that.” (emotional reflection)
Speaker: “It is. There is just no pleasing her, no matter how hard I try.”
Listener: “I can imagine that is a very difficult environment to work in every day.” (validation)


When it comes to doing this part, don’t worry if you aren’t sure exactly what emotions they are feeling. Just take a guess and chances are they will correct you if you are wrong, which will still help them address their emotional reactions to the situation.  It also helps to follow up after your response by asking if you understood them correctly and if there is anything else they wanted to share.

You probably know it is a lot easier to do this when the subject of the speaker’s concern is anyone other than you…it’s much harder to maintain a neutral reaction and still go through these steps when they are talking about you, without getting defensive or expressing your own thoughts! However, it is in times of conflict when these listening steps matter the most. Keep in mind that reflecting and validating their perspective is not the same thing as agreeing with them.  You can maintain your opinion and your perspective while at the same time letting them feel that you can see it their way as well. If you provide this kind of reflective listening to your spouse and family, discussions probably won’t get as heated because they won’t feel so frustrated about not only the primary issue, but also about feeling misunderstood or feeling as though you don’t care about what they have to say.  And this in turn will make them more open and considerate of what you have to say when it becomes your time to share.

Finally, I think one reason we occasionally lack in active listening skills is because we don’t see it as being truly helpful, or at least not as helpful as actively solving a problem.  But I assure you, feeling heard and understood is essential for people!  Our society’s general lack of consistently providing this for each other is part of what keeps me in business, unfortunately.  So I hope you take these tips in Counseling 101 and apply them in your marriage and your family today!

Jayna Pyke, MA, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor

Speak Your Mind