Dear John and Jane,
Healthy communication is one of the most important aspects of a successful relationship. This letter will address the principles behind effective interpersonal communication, the barriers to efficient interpersonal interactions, strategies for how to best listen to your partner, the effect of communication on the development of a relationship, and strategies for mediating interpersonal conflicts. We will see that the most important aspect of communication in a relationship is the ability to listen to and understand your partner’s needs and feelings, which forms the foundation of healthy expression of ideas. While this can be difficult, and often requires constant attention and practice, this letter will hopefully provide you with the tools you need to improve your communicative abilities through listening and will demonstrate the myriad benefits that can be attained through the use of such techniques.
The fundamental principle of effective interpersonal communication is listening to the other person at all times. As the Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, Dr. Robert Leahy (2011) so eloquently states, “We want to feel that our partner cares about and respects our feelings. We want to believe that they have time to listen. We want to feel supported, soothed and that we are not a burden.” When we fail to listen to the other person it can create a great deal of animosity in a relationship, and can instantly shut down communication between the two parties by making discussion feel unwelcome or unrewarded. To ensure healthy communication it is therefore imperative that listening skills are possessed and utilized by both parties in the relationship. While it may seem that in a long term relationship many couples would realize this and work towards effective listening and communication, we find that the opposite often occurs.
While many couples believe that over the course of their time together they have developed a natural ability to effectively communicate, the opposite is often true. According to The US News and World Report (2011) “Some couples may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think. You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person, precisely because the two of you are so close.” This quote emphasizes both the most important principle and misconception of interpersonal communications. Listening to one another is both the foundation of effective communication and ironically the communicative skill least utilized by most couples due to the fact that they perceive themselves as having such an innate sense of what the other person thinks that they no longer need to listen to them. The importance of good listening skills simply cannot be overstated, and the misconception that over the course of a relationship we develop the ability to intuit what the other person thinks without utilizing active listening skills can be catastrophic.
One of the biggest barriers to effective interpersonal interactions is angry, defensive, improper usage of punctuation, and dismissive responses to honest attempts at communication, which are reflective of a failure to truly listen to the viewpoint of the other person and address their concerns. Claire McIntosh (2013) sums up the effect of these tactics when she states—“Withdrawing. Stonewalling. Exaggerating. Criticizing. Defending. Retaliation. Belittling. Nagging. Name-calling. Cursing. Threatening. If you routinely argue with any of these in your arsenal you are poisoning your relationship”. These methods of argument stifle communication and fail to address the needs of either party, eventually creating a breakdown of meaningful interaction. They also are reflective of a failure to listen to and empathize with the other party and address their concerns in a reasonable manner. These tendencies can cause seriously damaging effects by draining a relationship free of listening and communication.
There are a number of strategies that can help a couple develop better listening skills in their relationship. One of the most effective techniques is to make sure that topics are being addressed in the relationship that encourage meaningful interaction and discussion. As Nara Schoenberg (2011) recommends, backing her claims with data on relationships from researcher Terri Orbuch, “…ask your partner about his or her favorite book, best friend or dream vacation. Why doesn't he get along with his brother? What would she do if she won the lottery? Couples in Orbuch's study who discussed such topics for as little as 10 minutes a day were much happier, she says, and less likely to divorce.” Being sure to steer conversation topics away from the mundane is an excellent technique to keep the lines of communication in a relationship open, and helps keep listening skills intact through the discussion of topics that require critical thinking and meaningful engagement. In addition, there are certain mindset changes that one can make to help ensure effective listening.
The type of listening that is most important in a relationship is what is referred to as empathic listening. According to Kathy Sole (2011), “With empathic listening, you make a deliberate attempt to connect with another person and to put yourself in his or her shoes or provide a supportive listening environment...Empathic listening requires that you demonstrate a willingness to be nonjudgmental and to listen openly to the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.” This open-minded approach toward communication and discussion does not come easily to many people, and it can often take a concerted effort to approach your partner’s point of view from an open and empathetic perspective. However, when this approach is properly utilized it can open the door to much more effective communication where each party in the relationship feels understood and valued and tensions do not bubble under the surface without being addressed.
There are a number of ways in which nonverbal concepts and expressions can affect our interpersonal relationships. One of the most important ways that perceptions and emotions can cloud a person’s ability to listen and effectively manage relationships is by being distracted by feelings toward the speaker at the moment rather than focusing on the message. As Sole (2011) states, it is essential to “work to shut judgments about the speaker’s appearance, tone of voice, or other such factors out of your mind when you are speaking with someone, and focus on the words and the meaning rather than on the person delivering the message.” When you focus on your perception of the speaker and your emotions toward them, even one with who you are in a relationship, it clouds your ability to listen and therefore maintain an effective interpersonal relationship. These sorts of irrelevant distractions make listening, and therefore communicating, much more difficult and can become incredibly destructive to a relationship if they become a habit. In addition, proper listening and communication require an understanding of the effects of nonverbal cues in a relationship.
Unchecked nonverbal expressions can seriously hinder the ability to properly communicate with a partner. As Sole (2011) states, if you are distracted or otherwise inattentive during a discussion with your partner “…your nonverbal behavior will usually make this fact obvious. The break in eye contact with the other person as well as changes in your facial expression or other body language may indicate that you have become distracted and are not focused on the conversation.” For this reason, it is imperative to effectively manage nonverbal expressions and be sure that they are not inhibiting your communication or giving the impression that listening is not important to you. These nonverbal elements of conversation can often be even more noticeable than what is stated, and mastery of these impulses can have an incredibly beneficial effect on a relationship.
Listening skills can also be a vital strategy for managing interpersonal conflicts. As Leahy (2011) states, “rationality and problem-solving are important, but if your partner wants to be heard and respected you better find out first before you jump in and take control.” All too often people attempt to diffuse interpersonal conflicts in a relationship by attempting to solve a problem as quickly as possible without taking the time to understand their partner’s perspective or listen to why certain issues are important to them. By slowing the process down and making your partner feel as though their emotions and perceptions are important to you many of the more difficult problems that arise within a relationship can be assuaged to a remarkable degree. The ability to manage interpersonal conflict with a caring and thoughtful perspective, and generous emotional support, is an essential tool for any couple in a long term relationship, and one that in many cases has a great deal to do with listening skills.
Overall, I hope this letter has demonstrated the myriad ways in which listening skills can have a profound effect on the health and development of a relationship. The ability and desire to listen plays a key role in effective personal communications, and the misconception that it grows less necessary as one knows their partner on a deeper level is one of the most damaging misconceptions regarding communication within a relationship. In addition, excellent listening skills help break down the barriers that hinder effective communication and can help resolve interpersonal conflicts. One also must be aware of how actions, emotions, and perceptions can affect the ability to listen, as well as acknowledge that effective listening skills take practice and commitment, even in the most healthy and loving relationships. However, if these listening skills are mastered and kept in mind they will help create a communicative dynamic within your relationship that will help you withstand whatever obstacles and challenges come your way through the power of effective and useful interpersonal communication with one another.
Close relationships sometimes mask poor communication. (2011, January 24).US News. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2011/01/24/close-relationships-sometimes-mask-poor-communication
Leahy, P. (2011, January 27). Why men don't listen to women. The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-leahy-phd/why-men-dont-listen-to-wo_b_808187.htm
McIntosh, C. (2013, May 14). The seven deadly relationship sins. Ebony. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from http://www.ebony.com/love-sex/the-seven-deadly-relationship-sins
Schoenberg, N. (2011, January 14). Can we talk?. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-01-14/features/sc-fam-0111-talk-relationship-20110111_1_happy-marriages-couples-marital-therapy
Sole, K. (2011). Making connections: Understanding interpersonal communication. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.