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How to Be an Active Listener To Your Partner

A couple talking and active listening while sitting in the grass.

It’s a terrible habit but so many people have it. We “listen” only in the sense that we wait for our turn to respond. But listening doesn’t mean asking a question and waiting through someone’s answer to give our own answer. It means actually taking the time to engage with what someone is saying.

Being an active listener is so crucial to a relationship. Relationships can fall apart if one partner feels that the other partner isn’t listening. It’s never fun to say something to your partner and have them ask the same question three minutes later. Active listening is just as important on a first date as it is ten years into a relationship.

If we’re not used to active listening, it can take some time to change our ways. Try enacting these steps in your day to day life. These small steps can make a big change.

Focus on your partner.
It’s a simple request but how many times do you find yourself zoning out and thinking about other things when your partner is telling you a story? It happens. You might have had a long day at work and are still thinking about work but your partner is trying to engage you. Recognize that your focus has drifted and remind yourself to focus on one thing at a time, in this case your partner.

2. Process what your partner is saying and put yourself in their shoes.
Really try to think about what your partner is saying and, even further, think about what’s driving what they’re saying. Have they talked to you about this before? Do they just need to vent or are they looking for advice? Is this connected to something else that’s going on in their lives? Think about how to approach engaging with them by really honing in on what they’re saying. Think about the emotion behind what they’re telling you and why they’re feeling that way.

3. Pay attention to other cues that can tell you how they’re feeling.
Take a look at body language. If your partner is looking closed off, arms crossed, not looking you in the eye, not facing you even, they might be feeling a bit vulnerable. This might be a difficult topic to them so approach gently. Or maybe they’re moving around a lot, fidgeting, or playing with their hair. They might be nervous and need reassurance from you that it’s okay to continue.

4. Check your bias.
Your partner is coming to you for a reason. They trust you. They rely on you. It’s okay to not agree with everything that they’re saying, but try to keep your judgements to yourself. Maybe you don’t agree with something your partner did at a certain point in a story that they’re telling you. That’s fine but remember that you weren’t in your partner’s situation.

If you want to call attention to this one moment, pay attention again to how they’re feeling. If they seem to be feeling a little down or vulnerable at the moment, you may want to let it go. If they seem excited or happy, wait until the story is over and approach the conversation gently. But just remember that you may have a bias that is guiding your reason for feeling that way, so be sure that your bias isn’t playing a role in how you’re responding here.

5. Engage without interrupting and not to just turn the conversation towards you.
It’s okay to interject a feeling of empathy. Maybe you’ve been where your partner stood before and want to say how you dealt with the situation. There’s nothing wrong with that, but try to keep the conversation on your partner who wanted to talk to you. Tell how you dealt with the situation and then ask a question to reengage your partner. And only offer this interjection once they are done speaking.

Think through whether or not that’s what your partner needs before jumping into speaking. Maybe your partner just needed to vent a little and just really wanted someone to listen because they don’t feel listened to all day. Just by being there and actively listening, you’re helping. By asking more questions you might be undoing some of the relief your partner got by getting their story out.

This is why it’s so important to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and pay attention to how they’re talking to you. By doing so, you can best decide how to engage or what your partner needs from you in this moment.

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