7 Listening Tips to Build Healthy Relationships

Recently I was reminded of the children’s game “broken telephone.” As I reflected on the humorous possibilities of the game through a playful illustration, I was struck by the importance of listening for effective communication. With hand held devices and social media, we claim to be more connected than ever. Despite our many advances in technology, we still can’t know what someone else thinks or how they feel without listening to them. Without listening, an intended message can become distorted and misinterpreted, and this can cause disconnection and conflict in relationships.

In all human relationships it is normal and natural for there to be moments of disconnection. The key to a healthy relationship is having the ability to reconnect after moments of disconnection.

One of our main goals at Art as Therapy is to build and restore relationships both within and beyond the art therapy sessions. After safety and trust have been established, the therapeutic relationship becomes a place where clients can express whatever is on their minds. Clients express their thoughts and emotions through interactions and conversation with the therapist, but also through their art making process and the resulting artwork. Children communicate through their play. The therapist’s role is to offer their full presence as they witness and listen to whatever it is that the client is communicating. The goal is to understand the client from his or her perspective and reflect this back so that the client can gain insight, make connections, and discover his or her inner power and potential.

While the therapeutic relationship is a unique kind of relationship with specific boundaries and guidelines, genuine listening has the power to transform any human relationship. In a TedX Talk about the power of listening, world-renowned negotiator and mediator William Ury suggested that “listening may be the golden key that opens the door to human relationships.” Similarly, Kathleen Macferran, a certified trainer in nonviolent communication, stated that “listening restores relationships.”

Genuine listening requires our full presence and attention. It requires that we approach the interaction with an open heart and an open mind, in the hopes that we might see the world from the other’s perspective. By giving our full presence to the other person’s feelings and needs, we hope to understand what they are communicating. We don’t have to agree, and we don’t try to fix or solve the situation. This kind of listening builds and restores relationships because it communicates the message “I am here for you”. When we truly listen, it helps us to understand the other side, to build trust and rapport through connection, and it makes it more likely that we will be listened to in return.

So how can we improve our ability to listen in relationships? Here are 7 tips for how to be a better listener:

  1. Take a moment to listen to yourself first. It is nearly impossible to offer our full attention to another person if we have not paid attention to our own needs first. Our minds will be filled with noise and distractions that will make it challenging to truly listen. Before an important conversation with a partner, friend, or child, try taking a few quiet moments to just be alone and tune in to how you are feeling, what you’re thinking, and what you need. Pay attention to your own experiences. If you acknowledge where you are at, it will be much easier to let this go and clear space in your mind to hear how someone else is truly feeling.
  2. Offer your full attention and focus on the other person. Often when we think that we are listening, we are actually still focused on ourselves. We may be thinking about our own opinions on the topic, or about how we are going to answer, rather than focusing on truly understanding the other person’s perspective. We can show the other person that they have our full attention by eliminating distractions ( eg. turn off the tv, put down the phone) and by making eye contact.
  3. Pay attention to what the other person is saying. Listen to the content of the message. Pay attention to word choice, tone of voice, and inflection.
  4. Pay attention to what’s not being said. Notice facial expressions and body language. Listen for the emotions behind the words. What is the other person communicating through what they’re not saying?
  5. When there’s a pause, repeat the message as you understand it. Paraphrase and summarize in your own way. This shows the other person that you are paying attention and that you’re working to understand what they are communicating. It also actively engages you in the listening process and provides an opportunity for the other person to hear how you have understood the message. You can try phrases like “I think you’re saying that…” “So when this happens, it makes you feel…” “You’re feeling…”
  6. Clarify that you’ve got it right. As you express what you’ve understood, check with the other person to see if you have received the intended message. Ask, “Am I getting this right?” If you haven’t gotten it, don’t give up. Ask open ended questions to gain clarification. This will demonstrate to the other person just how much you care about what they’re telling you, and will show how hard you are working to connect with them and to understand.
  7. Respond with empathy. Don’t offer advice or attempt to fix the situation. Instead, focus on trying to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective – explore what it’s like and how it feels. Allow space for the other person to suggest what’s next. If they want advice, they’ll ask for it. Usually what we really want and need is to feel that we have been heard.

As a final thought, Kathleen Macferran pointed out that “Listening is not the absence of talking, but it provides the foundation for what you say.” Being a great listener doesn’t mean that we can never express our opinions or offer feedback in relationships. However, it does mean that we usually listen first and respond second. We allow our understanding of the other person’s perspective to inform our reactions. When we hear the emotions and needs that are being communicated, we are able to offer support in ways that are truly meaningful for the other person. In this way, genuine listening builds and restores relationships.

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy


TedX Talk – The Power of Listening by William Ury https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saXfavo1OQo

TedX Talk – The Art of Listening by Kathleen Macferran https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXRneCHrbT8

“Wholehearted Listening: How we listen affects how we are heard” by Tish Jennings, PhD.