Listening in Close Relationships

A successful relationship is a skilled accomplishment - an accomplishment wherein various social and communication abilities play vital roles in every phase of relationship development
— Brant Burleson, "Personal Relationships as Skilled Accomplishment" (1995), 575

In his article in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Burleson (1995) summarizes one of the central commitments of communication scholars: Relationships are formed, maintained, and destroyed through communication.  This axiom is true of all close relationships  - friendships, familial ties, romantic partnerships, work relationships, and potential personal and professional partnerships alike. Although there are differences in what it takes to maintain a successful friendship compared to a successful business partnership, there are many similarities.  

I fundamentally believe that quality listening is a skill that cuts across relationships - it is necessary to feel valued, respected, and understood in your friendships and romantic relationships just as much as it is necessary to feel these things in professional relationships. Doctors who actually listen to their patients are better doctors, and people who feel listened to by salespeople are more likely to buy.

Listening in close relationships means being attentive, largely (but not exclusively) non-judgmental, and respectful of the other person's opinions, attitudes, emotions, and feelings. It does not mean you have to agree, however. Two people can come from vastly different perspectives but still have a cordial and pleasant conversation that opens a space for collaborative problem solving and mutual understanding and respect.

A recent Wall Street Journal article featuring my research presented readers with a five-phase listening model that I think can be applied to many different types of conversations. The one depicted happens to be about a stressful day (which is where most of my research focuses), but you can apply these same guidelines for conversations about disagreements as well as conversations that involve seeking clarity for something confusing or otherwise unclear:

The article highlights several behaviors found to be important to quality listening - eye contact, asking open-ended questions, reflecting feelings and paraphrasing. I have published several studies that provide empirical support for the utility of these behaviors; you can find links to those on my publications page.

If you are interested in improving your listening skills, please contact me! I work with individuals and businesses to create customized educational programs that focus on boosting listening and related communication skills. I would love to help find a workable solution for you too!