One reason that relationships falter is that people fail to listen to each other. Try the following exercise to help you learn to avoid being distracted by your own thoughts and reactions, including the desire to jump in and participate while the other person is talking. I recommend trying this exercise with a friend, partner, or family member you know and care about.
Give yourself about 15 minutes so each of you has a chance to speak and listen. Begin by talking about something that is going on in your life right now for about three to five minutes. It could be a crisis, an ongoing problem, or perhaps an event from the past or one in the near future. You might also discuss feelings or situations that do not involve the listener. If the topic does involve the listener, be careful to discuss only your feelings about the situation, individual, or relationship, and avoid criticizing or attacking the listener.
Remember that you and your partner are attempting to simply talk, listen, and understand each other. The listener should not interrupt or coax the speaker. Rather than jumping in to agree or disagree, the listener should maintain eye contact and stay focused on what the other person is saying. If the listener’s mind wanders for a few moments — for instance, trying to formulate what he or she will say next — the listener should push those thoughts away and bring their attention back to what the speaker is saying.
When the first speaker is done, switch roles. The second speaker’s topic may be completely unrelated to yours, or it could pick up on what you were talking about. If it is related to your topic, your partner should be mindful not to retaliate or attack, and instead focus on their own feelings.
After both participants have had a chance to speak and listen, spend the next few minutes reflecting on what the experience felt like.
Many people find they are able to understand their partner’s point of view much better — sometimes for the first time — when they remain calm and listen without getting defensive.
Often by simply focusing their attention, avoiding the urge to interrupt, and showing interest through eye contact and nonverbal cues, people develop an almost immediate sense of empathy and understanding for the other person.
It may take practice to break the habit of interrupting during a conversation with encouraging thoughts, feelings, and one’s own experiences, but it gets easier with practice — and that practice pays off by enriching our relationships.
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