Listening is hard work. Countless thoughts interrupt our focus, distracting us and blocking our understanding of one another. All too often, we are more interested in expressing our thoughts, than in hearing someone else’s. Obstacles to good communication magically melt away when we learn how to truly listen to another person.

Effective listening requires that you:
1. Abandon your own point of view for the moment.
2. Concentrate on what the other person is saying.
3. Clarify the speaker’s message.
4. Deal with the feelings the message is arousing.
In short, it demands that you actively listen.

Many years ago I discovered a program called Parent Effectiveness Training that enabled me to speak with my children in a most effective manner. One particular skill from this program has proven equally useful in conversations with adults. More effective than passive listening (silence,) Active Listening is an extraordinary way for two people to connect. Be they parent/child, employer/employee, friend/friend, husband/wife, adult child/parent, this skill will enhance the relationship.

Communication in a conversation occurs when:

A. One person speaks (sends a message) to another person.
B. The message sent is received by the second person and hopefully understood in the way it was intended.
C. Clarification is sought in order to help insure that the correct message was delivered.

Communication can break down when the message sent (as well as the underlying feeling that is implied in it) is not comprehended by the receiver.

For example, when after a day’s work, the wife greets the husband with the message, "I'm so exhausted, it's been a rotten day." She may be communicating her need to simply relate her current state of mind and body. Her spouse on the other hand, may decode her message as a demand for him to cook tonight's dinner. In reaction to his own misinterpretation, he then becomes angry because he doesn’t respond well to a demand, and/or cannot or does not want to meet it. Unfortunately, he has misunderstood his wife’s need to have him just listen, and instead he barks, “I’m sick and tired of your complaints, I’m tired too.”

Here is the problem. Neither partner knows what the other’s thoughts were – there are no crystal bowls handed out during the marriage ceremony. The only way to find out is to develop a curiosity and interest in where the other person may be coming from.

Upon hearing what his wife said, the husband could check on the accuracy of his understanding, by relating his understanding of her message. He can do this by actually guessing his wife’s thoughts – the result of his encoding process, and expressing them to her. "You want me to make dinner because you are so tired." Now, hearing her husband's feedback, the wife is able to tell her husband that he decoded incorrectly. She could then tell him that what she really meant by her initial statement which had been, "I'm so exhausted, it's been a rotten day," was to just let him know how she felt, but that she nevertheless planned to make dinner since it was her turn to do so.

This feedback process is called Active Listening and is a relationship-rescuer. In this case the husband had initially misunderstood his wife. His investigation, however, elicited her feedback that illustrated his error, and allowed her to send yet another message that clarified her initial communication. The husband was now enabled to respond to her original message lovingly and effectively by saying, "You had a rough day and want me to know about it." What a happy ending!

To be an effective communicator and improve your relationships, you will want to begin to practice this important skill of Active Listening. All you need do is understand two concepts that so many people confuse.

ONE: The message sent may not have been received in the way that it was intended. It is essential to clarify the message.
TWO: Good loving listening, which is at the heart of a successful relationship, requires true understanding and reflection. The person you are in relationship with will feel understood and nurtured, and will want to return the favor.

What: The ability to respond to what someone is saying by maintaining an emotional distance. This requires the listener to suspend judgment and subdue her resulting feelings or response. To use this tool successfully, it is particularly important to learn how to defer your own reactions.

Why: This way of communicating frees your partner to be honest with you and encourages him to reveal himself. Therefore, you can be completely available to be supportive of your partner’s true feelings and concerns.

How: Reflect, mirror, paraphrase, repeat, or summarize what you hear, as opposed to defend or fix.

For Example:

He: I’m feeling anxious about dinner with my family.
She: So you are nervous about next week.
He: Yeah! You know what a pain in the butt my brother can be.
She: You really have a hard time with him.
He: I guess I’ll just deal.
She: You’ll figure it out as it comes at you.
He: Wow! You’re so great to talk to.
You really helped me. I feel better.

Here’s a tip. To practice Active Listening take your very next opportunity in a conversation with just about anyone you know to really listen to the speaker’s statement, and then reiterate the content and feelings that you heard expressed in her message.

Here’s another example:
Speaker A: “Joe should not have been a supervisor in my office.”
Speaker B: “You think Joe is a poor supervisor.”
Speaker A: “No, he’s a good supervisor. It’s just that he belongs in sales, not production.”

On another case in point:
Speaker A: “That’s the last straw! Can’t you leave me alone? Why do you always tell me what to do and then repeat yourself two or three times? It’s like you think I’m an idiot or something.”
Speaker B: “You feel picked on because I’m neurotic and I tend to repeat myself.”
Speaker A: “Yes! Do you know this really makes me feel like I’m in boot camp again.”
Speaker B: “How about our taking another look at our household task assignments?”

In the first example, Speaker B actively listened to A, and A was able to clarify the message for B. In the second case, B used Active Listening to show understanding and acceptance of A’s feelings, allowing A’s anger to fade once it was expressed. The two could then go on to a problem-solving discussion unhampered by antagonism.

Active Listening can help communication in several significant ways.
1. It slows down the communication process, offering more time to think, feel, and reflect.
2. It helps clarify the communication.
3. It raises the speaker’s self-esteem by demonstrating an interest in what the speaker is saying.
4. It can help defuse the speaker’s anger or emotional state letting him or her know that you hear, accept (but not necessarily approve) and understand.
5. It helps the speaker clarify his or her own thinking by giving some feedback on what feelings and attitudes you are hearing.

DIRECTIONS: Now that you have identified the feelings being expressed, try to determine the content of the message as well. By putting the two together, you are Actively Listening. Note below, in the left column is the message sent. Cover up the right column, and say or write your own response. Keep in mind both feeling and content (cause for feeling) in the right hand column as part of your response.

1. All I ever do around here You’re really fed up with doing
is clean up after you. doing work that you think
belongs to me.

2. No matter what I do, nobody seems You’re disappointed that your
to care. opinion doesn’t seem to matter.

3. What do you mean I’ve been late the You’re surprised that I’ve kept
last three times we’ve met for dinner? track of some of your bad

4. I don’t believe it! You’re asking me to You’re angry because you think
wash the dishes again? that I’m being unfair.

5. All they give a damn about in here is You’re frustrated because they the almighty dollar. don’t understand your problem.

6. Sometimes, I don’t even know why I You’re ready to give up. You bother trying. think that it’s useless to keep
trying, that things never change.

7. I will not! You’re always picking on me You’re really mad because you Get someone else. think that I’m being unfair to

8. I can’t live under these prison-like You’re discouraged, you want conditions. to do your best but you can’t
without some cooperation
from me.

9. Five lousy minutes! You’re carrying on You’re upset because you think because I was ready to leave five minutes I’m making an issue over five early. minutes.

Now that you understand the Active Listening skill, think back to a conversation that was a problem in terms of relating to another person. Describe it to your self – write it down or say it out loud. Write down or say the Active Listening formula that could rectify the condition. Take your earliest opportunity to revive the conversation with that person and use your new skill to heal the rift and lift the relationship to a higher level.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Rita Bigel-Casher, LCSW, PhD is a psychotherapist, Mind/Body Healer, and writer. Specializing in Individual Growth, Couple Wellness, and Family Therapy, utilizing both traditional and holistic tools for creative wellness, among them, CBT, EMDR and Hypnotherapy, Dr. Rita, as she is often called, is available to assist you. Author, BRIDE'S GUIDE TO EMOTIONAL SURVIVAL, Dr. Bigel-Casher offers office sessions in Manhattan, as well as telephone therapy. She can be reached at or at (212) 532-0032. For further information please visit her website: