Here is a little article I wrote for the Boulder Valley Public School District’s THRIVE newsletter. Mainly aimed at helping parents talk with their kids, but the principles could be applied to any relationship.

Although we have been talking to each other for thousands of years, we often fail to truly connect with what it is we are actually saying to one another. As a psychologist, the one truth I can state with certainty is that when we fail to truly understand one another, our relationships suffer. In my experience, our “communication problems” usually have less to do with what we say to one another, and more to do with how we listen to one another. If we can learn to listen as articulately as we speak, I think that we will all see our relationships improve. So as we enter into this New Year, here are 5 suggestions that will help you to dramatically improve your listening skills and improve the relationships with those around you.

Be actively available: Most people mistakenly assume that their loved ones will come to them if they have something important to talk about. I call this being “passively available”. Being “actively available” means taking the initiative to reach out to those around you and invite a discussion. For example, a simple “It looks like something is bothering you, I want you to know that I am here to talk with you” is often enough to open up the lines of communication.

Be willing: Be willing to listen to whatever it is that the person is saying in this moment. This means that we have to be “willing” to experience some uncomfortable, even difficult, feelings in ourselves when we are listening to whatever is being said to us. All too often we jump into problem solving mode to try to make the uncomfortable feeling go away. When we do this we stop listening. If you can hang in with the uncomfortable feeling, you will be able to hear the whole story!

Be reflective: When you feel you understand an aspect of what someone is saying to you, repeat it back to them using your own words. For example, if someone talks about feeling confused about an important decision, you might simply say “so you are really trying hard right now to decide what is the best solution for you”. This simple strategy may feel a bit awkward, but it is an effective way of letting the person know you are listening to them. It also provides them with the opportunity to correct you if they feel you are missing the point!

Be respectful: Respect their perspective, you don’t have to agree with it, but you can try and place yourself in their shoes. Simply stating that you can imagine how they might be feeling about a particular issue goes a long way.

Be thankful and encouraging: Thank them for trusting you enough to open up to you. This really lets them know that you value this type of communication. Also convey to them your belief in their ability to get through the situation. Often times this is exactly what the person wants and needs to hear.