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The universal love language is feeling listened to.
All humans have a need to feel seen, validated, and accepted by those they love.
These needs are as basic as our needs for food and water. We cannot thrive without them. Nothing says I love you more than a good listener, because when we know that someone is listening, we believe that we matter to them. It tells us that we are not “too much,” that our experiences are valid, that they accept us for who we are (good and not-so good), and they see us.
As a therapist, I worked with a couple in their early 30s who had been together for roughly seven years. The relationship was tumultuous and both felt exhausted by it. It was evident to me that they loved each other, despite sitting on opposite ends of the couch. If you asked them, they believed the other partner no longer loved them. They felt alone and unloved in their marriage.
You might be asking why I was so sure they were in love.
They were protesting the disconnection they felt. They were trying to get each other’s attention. They were finding ways to let the other one know that they needed them. They did not listen to each other’s cry for connection and reassurance. They kept missing what their partner was trying to convey by getting caught in the content and delivery.
They were very much in love and wanting to reconnect. They were also very much deaf to the cries of the other one. There’s no connection without communication.
Most of us know the importance of communication in relationships—all relationships, not just romantic—yet most couples (and families) come to therapy hoping to learn how to communicate. Basically, we know communication is essential to healthy relationships, but we don’t know how to do it. The key to good communication is listening, that’s where most of us get stuck. Listening sounds so simple, however, it is quite a challenge for most of us.
People talk if they believe they are being listened to. If you want your partner to open up to you and share what’s on their mind, you need to show them you are ready to listen. You need to create a space of emotional safety that can hold their thoughts and feelings.
I want to share hacks on how to improve your listening skills so that you can make others feel loved.
1. Be present.
Don’t daydream or scroll through social media while they are trying to speak with you. Show them that they have your undivided attention by making eye contact and repeating back what they said. I don’t mean you parrot through a whole conversation, but by reflecting what they said, you are ensuring that you are not misunderstanding anything and encouraging them to discuss the topic further.
Jordan: I am feeling stuck at my current job, maybe I should start looking.
Sam: Your job is making you feel stuck, so you are considering looking.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
Inquiring further will show interest and curiosity. It’s an invitation for the other person to expand on the topic and go deeper with you. Closed-ended questions lead to this or that answer with little valuable information. Open-ended questions allow the other person to reflect inward and explore what’s going on for them.
Sam: What is it about the job that is making you feel stuck?
Jordan: I don’t see room for growth, I think I’ve hit the ceiling.
3. Withhold judgment.
Don’t say, “I told you so” or, “You should have done it my way.” Don’t ridicule them for what they are experiencing—withhold judgment. Instead, find pain points to empathize with. Challenge yourself to mentally walk in their shoes. Try to understand why they would think, feel, and behave the way they do. Validate their feelings and experiences.
This does not imply that you are in agreement, but rather that you get the “why.” Don’t jump into fixer mode by providing unsolicited advice. Let them vent and then ask if they would like your opinion.
Sam: You know that you can’t reach your potential there.
Jordan: Exactly, I know there can be more room for growth elsewhere. I would hate to be stuck in the same position for the next 10 years doing the same old thing.
4. Be attuned to your own emotions as you listen.
Notice changes in your body as well as any thoughts that pop up. Find ways to breathe and self-soothe, so that you can keep yourself regulated. If you become dysregulated, you won’t be able to be a good listener. You need to become aware and responsible for your emotional reactions so that the other person feels like there is space for them to share with you about their emotional world.
One of the worst things you can do to someone who has a hard time being vulnerable is make a situation that is about them about you. Checking in with yourself is a must to be a good listener.
If you master these listening skills, the way you communicate with others will change. There’s no magic formula that will help you get your point across perfectly. You might say things in the most articulate and tactful way possible, and the other person might still misinterpret it.
Yet, these are steps that can help the other person feel loved even through difficult and vulnerable conversations.