What does good listening mean and why is it so necessary?

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When you listen to someone, how much of it do you remember? Give me a percentage?

20%, 50%, 100%?

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ― Ernest Hemingway

In the first two years of a romantic relationship we retain 80% of what our partner says.

20 years later it is down to 20%.

How sad.

Best friends remember 80%, as do good life coaches.

“Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” ― Ed Cunningham

Why do we stop listening to our partner but continue listening to our best friends?

So Best Friend  and I pondered this question and this is what we came up with, see if you agree.

  • We don’t live with our best friends (at least, mostly we don’t) and so don’t see them as often. we arrange to see them when we are in the mood to see them and therefore are more able to listen to them.
  • We know we have no control over our best friend and so can listen without being attached to the outcome
  • What our best friend does is likely to have less of a direct impact on our lives than a partner and so we can again listen with out attachment to what is being said as it doesn’t have any impact for us.
  • Best friends are often the same gender as us (see Deborah Tannen’s book ‘You just don’t understand: Men and Women in Coversation’ )
  • Men don’t listen in the same way, or for the same reasons as women (Allan Pease on Youtube will make you laugh and cry)
  • To listen with empathy for the other person is to surrender control and that can feel really uncomfortable especially when you’d like to be in control as we often want to be in relationships.
  • Best friends have special time together to listen to each other without other interruptions which isn’t always as easy when there are kids and jobs to juggle.
  • Maybe we don’t want to listen to our partners as much as there are other resentments, feelings of shame, anger and disappointment which means we can’t be bothered to pay attention
  • Maybe with our partners we think we’ve heard it all before as we see them so often and have seen them for so long.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. CoveyThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

How are we defining listening here?  “There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” ― G.K. Chesterton

  • Making eye contact
  • not interrupting
  • not making assumptions
  • not doing anything else
  • empathising
  • listening ‘for’ them rather than waiting for a gap to say what we think
  • listening without attachment to what we hear (boy that’s hard)
  • listen without judgement (and this one’s even harder)
  • listening with complete concentration and attention
  • listening with awareness of what we are feeling so that we can manage our feelings so that they don’t get in the way of listening.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph G. Nichols


Well maybe that’s why we don’t do it. Listening is hard when it is done well and it requires effort. 

“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.” ― Diogenes Laertius

Why does it matter if we listen to our long term partners…maybe we really have heard it all before? Do we really need to work so hard now we’ve bagged our partner?

  • Listening is a gift, it our a gift of our time and attention to them
  • When we listen we find out new stuff about our partner that we didn’t know and this keeps the relationship new and interesting
  • When we listen they feel understood and cared for which means the relationship get’s stronger
  • When we listen to them as described above they have new thoughts, new perspectives and ideas which they hadn’t had before so they change and grow
  • When we listen carefully to our partner in the way described above they feel safe in the knowledge that they won’t be judged or told what to do which builds trust and connection
  • When we listen as described above we allow our partner to feel things they haven’t been able to feel before and when they can, the emotions are released and new insights and trust is born
  • Secure attachment arises from this kind of listening and secure attachment leads to relationships which allow each individual the courage to be in relationship and still be themselves. When we are securely attached we can connect and explore, we can create and travel, we can be all of ourselves with each other
  • When we listen like this we are building connections in the moment. We are seeing our partner as new in this moment rather than disguising them with layers of what we think they are like, or what we assume they are saying. We meet our partner new in this moment
  • We experience our partner as separate from us and changing. We see their complexity, vulnerability and humanity which builds connection and intimacy
  • when we are listening like this we are no longer passing the time of day with each other, passing our lives by with each other, but engaging with each other as vital and changing organisms
  • When we listen like this and see each other as we are in the moment, completely, we experience compassion and give compassion.
  • When we listen like this we give up the illusion of control and surrender to what is and let ease appear

“Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals. (attr to J. Isham)” ― Sura HartRespectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation

And what happens if I don’t want to listen like that?

  • The relationship fossilizes and dies.
  • You get stuck in an image of each other that is out of date
  • You become strangers
  • You go off sex because you resent each other or take each other for granted
  • Resentment, distrust, disdain, contempt, boredom, judgement and apathy become your bedfellows
  • You die a little each day
  • You don’t see your partner as they really are nor do they see you as you really are
  • You split up and go through the lovely listening two years before doing it all again
  • You stay together and become parodies of lovers and friends

‘It is the province of knowledge to speak. It is the privilege of wisdom to listen’ Oliver Wendell Holmes

  • When was the last time you gave someone a really good listening to?
  • How well do you listen?
  • How can you get better at listening?

Make sure you get yourself a good listening to!


Photo by  Ray Hennessy

Julie Leoni

Regenerative living coach, author, podcaster, facilitator, educator, Dr

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