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The importance of listening

Someone I once knew told me that we should listen twice as much as we speak because God gave us two ears and only one mouth.  At first blush, it would seem that listening would be a relatively easy – even passive act.    If only it were so easy. 

Of all the skills I teach none is as valuable or difficult as learning to be a good listener.  Oddly enough, the closer we are to someone – the more emotionally attached we are to them – the more difficult listening becomes, and the more essential for the health of the relationship.

One thing we know about successful relationships is that feeling understood, accepted and valued (in that order) is one of the strongest glues that holds couples together.  In all the years that I’ve been working with couples, I rarely if ever hear anyone complain that they want more advice, opinions, immediate solutions, or that they need their partner to agree with them. 

What I do hear is the strong yearning partners have to be listened to, understood and accepted.  No agreement, no fixing.  I can’t remember anyone saying, “Please be logical with me and tell me why I shouldn’t feel this way.” 

People calm down when they’ve expressed themselves and feel acknowledged.  Once calm, they are capable of logical and reasonable thought and quite adept at problem solving.  When people feel listened to, understood, and acknowledged, it brings out the best in them.  They are more likely to be open-minded, empathic, flexible, generous and creative in their approach to a solution.

Years ago a friend shared this poem with me and I think it says it best:

Please Listen

When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen!  All I ask is that you listen.  Don’t talk or do – just hear me.

Advice is cheap; 20 cents will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.

I can do for myself; I am not helpless.  Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and inadequacy.

But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I can stop trying to convince you and get about this business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.  When that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.

Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s behind them.

Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people –

Because God is mute; He doesn’t give advice or try to fix things.

God just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.

So please listen, and just hear me.

And if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn – and I will listen to you.


It turns out that this kind of listening is a skill that does not come naturally, and needs to be learned and practiced often.  Please see my post on “communication skills for couples” for details on how to learn to be a good listener and how to know you are doing it right.