Relationships of every kind hinge on the ability to listen, and actually hear, what the other is saying. But that can be challenging.
For example, we talk at a rate of 125–175 words per minute, listen at a rate of 125–250 words per minute, but think at a rate of 1000–3000 words per minute. So evidently, it’s biologically difficult to listen. It takes effort. (See the end for references.)
Everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them, further and further reinforcing their own realities to the neglect of a common reality.
Consider just how hard it is to listen to yourself. We have an inner voice that reminds us to do or say the right thing. And yet so often we do or say the wrong thing.
There’s a popular aphorism among yogis to consider before we speak, “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” In a world where listening to our inner wisdom was easy, would advice like that even be necessary?
In asana practice, we learn that listening is sometimes kinesthetic or unspoken. Your body will tell you to stretch further or back off. Or persist in today’s practice or rest. Listen carefully and you preserve your body and develop your practice. Ignore it and get hurt.
That idea is vast and merits much more exploration. But for now, my interest is about listening to each other.
When you listen to someone, you should give up preconceived ideas and subjective opinions; you should just listen, just observe …
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
As I understand it, Suzuki is saying that listening requires the capacity to accept what’s being said. That, and maybe the willingness to be changed by what we hear.
The only way to do that is to suspend judgment, listen with attentive and honest interest, and if even for those few minutes, let yourself wonder how someone else came to be how they are and think what they do.
All that goes double when you’re listening to your partner, whose emotions and vulnerabilities are more exposed. You can hear their words. But the magic happens when we take the time to listen: What is s/he really trying to communicate?
“Pay attention the next time someone is talking, perhaps about something that you disagree with. When do you feel like you need to interrupt or mentally check out? What does that feel like physically in your body? Where do you feel it?”
—Tatiana Forero Puerta, The Yoga of Listening
Here are six ways to improve your listening:
- Care about what your partner is saying
- Engage with reflective listening and by asking questions
- Be empathetic—whether you agree or disagree, you can acknowledge and see the reason in their position
- Don’t judge—it clouds your thinking
- Notice and acknowledge non-verbal cues like eye contact, body language, facial expressions, and nods.
- Don’t Interrupt
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Lastly, I have always assumed that hearing and supporting each other during difficult times strengthens couples. Evidently the opposite is true: sharing good news, successes, and dreams is what strengthens relationships. The more good you share, and the more that good is relished, the more a relationship thrives.
So, although this post is about listening, it’s not a stretch to suggest saying something nice to your partner every day, share your successes and delights. And the next time your partner has something exciting, fun, or lovely to share, listen carefully. That good news could go a long way.
The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.
—Henry David Thoreau
Scientific American: The Happy Couple
Listening Statistics: 23 Facts You Need to Hear
Harvard Business Review: Listening to People
International Listening Association: Listening Statistics
Wright State University: Listening Effectively
NY Spirit: The Yoga of Listening
Couples Counseling Chicago: Five Keys to Active Listening for Couples