The Difference Between Listening and Hearing: 5 Tips to Improve Communication

Have you ever felt like you and your partner have the same argument on repeat? Do you find yourself saying the same thing over and over but never actually feeling heard? If so, you are certainly not alone.

These five tips will help you shift your communicating from merely talking “at” or “near” one another, to an experience of feeling deeply heard and understood.

1. Timing is Key

 If you’ve ever tried to reason with a two-year-old mid tantrum, you know that this is an impossible task until they calm down. Although our “adult tantrums” look very different, in the midst of a fight or upset, adults experience something called Emotional Flooding, which makes it nearly impossible to be calm or logical. Because of this, choosing the appropriate time to have a deep or challenging conversation is key to success. Rather than trying to fix it in the moment, give yourself the time to calm down first; you’ll have better results.

2. Planning a Rebuttal Prevents Deep Listening

We all know the feeling of wanting to defend and protect ourselves. However, this can be one of the biggest roadblocks to good communication. When we are approaching a conversation from a defensive place, we put more energy into planning our rebuttal than we do to hearing our partner. If you notice your inner voice beginning to formulate your “comeback,” chances are you see your partner’s mouth moving but you’ve stopped listening. Practice looking for your “inner lawyer” and pause or delay the conversation until you are free of him/her.

3. Remember, You are on the Same Team

When you find yourself in a challenging conversation, it can be very helpful to slow down and remember why you are having this conversation in the first place. More often than not, it is because you love and care about one another and want to continue moving forward. It can be helpful to write down, or verbally share a list of common goals and desires. This helps redirect you from fighting “against” one another to fighting “with” one another for the same cause.

4. Taking Responsibility

The trick to this one is remember that you don’t have to have done something “wrong” to take responsibility for how you may be impacting your partner. The truth is, who is “right” and who is “wrong” is actually irrelevant when it comes to truly hearing your partner. When we take responsibility for our actions and words (regardless of their intent) it has a sizable impact on our partner. Chances are, if you step up to the plate and start taking responsibility, your partner will want to do the same.

5. Reflection NOT Correction

Have you ever looked at a piece of art with another person and realized that what you were seeing or focusing on was entirely different than what they were seeing? The reason for this is that we each see and understand the world through our own individual lens. While this is a beautiful part of being a human, it can also lead to very frustrating miscommunications when you realize that you and your partner have looked at an event or conversation from entirely different perspectives. A way to mitigate this is to practice “Reflection WITHOUT correction.” When we attempt to “correct” what our partner is saying, it can lead to dead ends and frustrations. However, if we are able to “reflect” what our partner is saying—without inserting our own experience—we are able to truly listen and understand a situation from a new point of view.

Grace Stein, LSW