Building a solid foundation for the development of good communication skills involves learning how to listen effectively. There are several elements of effective listening. These elements include attention, reflection, ability to tolerate tension, and ability to challenge the assumptions that are usually made.

When teaching couples how to change how they talk to each other, active listening is stressed. Much of the time, poor listening skills are at the heart of couple communication problems. You can't have effective communication without good listening skills. And you cannot be good at solving problems together without good communication skills.

In the absence of effectively listening, the message sent or intended is often not the same message as the one received by the listener. Although this may happen for a lot of different reasons, poor listening is commonly at fault.

There are a number of things that can get in the way of good listening, including assumptions that tells the listener that s/he does not need to listen past some point. For example, the listener may assume that he/she knows what the other is going to say, and may thus attend to just enough of the message to confirm his/her belief. Similarly, a failure to pay attention or succumbing to distractions, and rehearsing what your response will be, also get in the way. What often happens is that the “listener” may tune out the other person while trying to figure his/her response.

Both of these scenarios are setups for the condition of escalating attempts to be heard, where each one’s response virtually guarantees that neither will be heard and that neither point of view will be understood. At this point, neither spouse is listening to the other, and neither seems to have that awareness.

When there are problems with focus or attention, the issue may be deliberate or non-deliberate lack of listening. To be a good listener, practice these guidelines:

1. Pay close attention to what is going on.
2. Concentrate on what they are saying.
3. Maintain eye contact without staring.
4. Don't interrupt.
5. Don't worry about what you are going to say until s/he is finished.
6. Practice active listening.

Active listening is an especially helpful tool in effective communication. Sometimes called "reflective listening", active listening involves clarifying the message to make sure that you heard what was said by repeating it back. An active listening technique that is helpful is the use of the phrase, "What I hear you saying is..." This is only one example of reflective listening and feedback. Any clarifying question could serve as active listening. The point is that when you clarify a message, you are making sure that the message that you have received is the same messages as the one that was sent, or intended.

Sometimes the process can still get derailed when the paraphrased "what I heard you saying" message is met with "that is not what I said", and then an argument ensues over which one is correct. Couples get derailed by arguing about what was actually said or not said in the first place. This is easily remedied by each person bearing in mind that the goal is effective communication, not proving who is “right” or “wrong”. A good phrase to remember for this situation is, "actually, what I intended to say was..."

Reflective listening feels awkward, unnatural, odd, stiff, and just plain weird. It does however, have a number of benefits that make it worth learning and practicing. Through active listening you can eliminate most of your arguments by making sure that the message that is received is the one that was sent.

By carefully clarifying messages, you can identify the patterns in your assumptions and distorted beliefs. Once the patterns have been identified, the assumptions and underlying beliefs can be challenged and replaced with at least neutral thoughts. For example, if you know that you are likely to assume that you will be abandoned, you don't have to panic when your partner tries to de-escalate a discussion by taking a time-out. You can instead, sooth yourself, by reminding yourself that s/he hasn’t left yet in a conflict and probably won’t this time.

When you can actually hear what is being said in your conversations, you are less likely to engage in circular arguing, with each volley of verbal assaults setting up more miscommunication.

Communication exercises and training that have an active listening component are especially helpful. The "Honey Jar" is a couples communication exercises that encourages couples to practice active listening.

Author's Bio: 

When you are trying to improve your relationship skills, especially communication skills, use as many resources as you can find to empower yourself. The website of Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., has a number of articles and other resources available to you at "The Honey Jar", a couples' communication exercise is available for purchase and download at

Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., LADC, LMFT, is a private practice professional providing addiction counseling and marriage/family therapy in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She is also a writer, trainer, and consultant.