The Most Important Relationship Skill: Do You Have It?

For years I prided myself on being an excellent communicator. I built a previous career on an ability to express my feelings and be vulnerable with the people around me. While I was gaining recognition in the field for my relational art projects, my most intimate relationships were a source of tremendous confusion and pain. I spent year after year in couples therapy with different boyfriends trying to deepen our connection. Every few years a relationship would head south and I’d find myself scratching my head wondering what went wrong. Even after all of the therapy I was unable to see that my communication skills were seriously underdeveloped.

And then something shifted on my 29th birthday.

While on a silent meditation retreat in the deep woods of Oregon, everything came crashing down.

I had been practicing meditation for years, but I had never had a melt down like this before. I felt like a crazy person. I cried for what felt like hours, feeling everything I had been holding back in my relationship with my boyfriend. I knew deep down I was not communicating with him well and I saw how much fear was holding me back from truly being present.

I cried for what felt like hours, feeling everything I had been holding back in my relationship.

After hours of sobbing for all of the regrets I had about not being able to really show up for our relationships, I decided it was finally time to change.

And then I let it all go.

For the first time in years I felt light and open to transforming our partnership. I was ready to get back to Portland and finally learn how to communicate more effectively with my then boyfriend.

Even after diving right back into therapy, we didn’t last. We couldn’t. The road was just too bumpy. However, the beauty of our separation was that I was able to show up and be the woman that I could be at work and with girlfriends but was too afraid to be with him.

One of the main takeaways from that relationship was that I needed a major overhaul in my listening skills. It’s true that I was great at expressing my feelings and articulating my thoughts. But I was also a terrible listener. Every therapist I saw suggested a number of tools to help me learn how to listen well, but until the meditation retreat I was unwilling to put them into practice. I thought for years that I had listened well enough.

I was great at expressing my feelings and articulating my thoughts. But I was also a terrible listener.

Today, my current boyfriend and I are discussing getting married in the future. For a woman that was certain she would never settle down, this is a major development. It speaks volumes about the amount of energy I have put into learning how to communicate with my boyfriend. Really listening to each other has been at the center of our relationship.

When we learn how to truly listen to our partners and support them with our undivided attention, it builds lasting intimacy. This bond helps us withstand life’s ups and downs. True intimacy is based on understanding and creating a space where both parties are acknowledged and heard.

Over the years many friends and clients have asked me: What is the most important aspect of communication? I always say learning how to listen well. So, I’ve pulled together an outline that walks you through the stages of listening during a conversation with your partner. These are the tools that have supported us and will hopefully help you become a better listener too.

Do you really listen?

It’s natural during a conversation to tune in and out of what the other person is saying. We do it all day long. Most of us have a tendency to be a bit preoccupied with our own thoughts much of the time. This can be especially true if the conversation is emotionally charged. Over time, this lack of being fully present can disrupt genuine communication and cause harm to relationships.

Think about a time you tried to confide in someone and they were distracted or not really paying attention.

  • How did that make you feel?
  • Were you shut down emotionally afterwards or leave the conversation feeling badly about yourself?
  • Did you want to talk to them in the future about something close to your heart?

Now think about a time when your partner wanted to share something important with you.

  • Were you listening with an open mind or were you thinking about how you were going to respond?
  • Was it challenging for you to sit still and give them your undivided attention?
  • When the conversation ended did you feel closer to your partner and grateful they chose to share?

We’ve all been the person who wasn’t heard and the one who didn’t listen. Learning how to pay attention to our partners and listen with a desire to support and understand them is the glue that holds relationships together. Here are some tips for becoming a better listener.

Pay attention
Are you able to listen while distracted? Chances are, probably not very well. One of the most genuine ways to show that you are invested in your partner is to give them your undivided attention as often as possible. It’s important to make listening to your partner a priority if you want the relationship to last. Take a little time to set down your phone, close your laptop screen, and look them in the eyes when they are talking. These simple suggestions will improve the way you communicate quickly and your partner will feel heard and valued.

Don’t interrupt
When you allow your partner to talk without commenting or interrupting, it gives them permission to fully express themselves. Sometimes it can take folks a while to put their words together, especially if you’re having a difficult conversation. Try your best to sit and listen without interjecting. It’s natural to want to help and offer advice, especially when someone is having a hard time. If it’s difficult for you not to talk, try using non-verbal cues to let the person know you are listening.

Notice body language
While your partner is speaking, notice their facial expressions and gestures. Most of our communication happens through our body, not our verbal language. Watch your partner, and soak in as much information as you can about how they are feeling. These clues are going to give you a great deal of insight into how they communicate, ultimately building intimacy.

Get clear
When your partner has finished speaking, try paraphrasing what they said and repeat it back to them. This simple action shows you were listening. It also helps ensure there aren’t misunderstandings. If you are unsure about something, ask a clarifying question to understand your partner in a deeper way. Remember, this is about listening to your partner, not assuming you know what they mean.

Offer support
Lastly, ask them what they need from you. This is huge! Sometimes people want advice or an opinion, other times they just want to be heard and need you to be a sounding board. Let your partner decide what they need even when you think you know best! This is all part of building intimacy and really seeing who your partner is.

The key to listening well is being fully present. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often says, “The greatest gift we can offer someone is our true presence.” Cultivating loving relationships begins with opening our hearts, minds, and ears to the person we have chosen to be with. Developing your listening techniques will be only help in all of your relationships moving forward.

If you’re ready for a challenge this week, experiment with a few of my tips for improving your listening abilities. Remember, learning a new set of skills takes commitment and practice. It’s not about doing it perfectly; it’s about showing up and being willing to improve. Start small and build from there—you will be amazed at the results!