“Throughout our lives, we’re rewarded for speaking well but not for listening.”
– Helen LaKelly Hunt

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is the act of perceiving sounds, while listening takes a conscious effort of giving attention to what is being vocalized to you.

Listening is hugely important in a healthy and thriving relationship. And, naturally, we are not very good listeners. Good listening isn’t just something we should desire of others, but something we should work on getting better at and expect of ourselves. 

In an interview with Jenn Brown, a partner from 1440 Multiversity, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt talked about the importance of listening.

Q: Is it true that we aren’t very good listeners?

Harville: In the resting state, when we’re not distracted, the research shows we have a 13–18% accuracy rate. If we’re distracted, the distortion rate goes up to almost 100% immediately. The reason this happens is that most of us are running a movie in our minds, projecting reality as we know it or as we fear it, wish it, or remember it.

Our attention is on our own internal process, and unless we turn the switch off and make a focused effort to pay attention, we actually get very little of what is being said to us.

Helen: We’re taught in our culture to start speaking when we’re very young, and from this early age of nine months or a year old, our parents get excited when we say something well. That continues in school. If you can talk clearly, deliver a good book report, or win a debate contest, people say, “Wow! You’re so well-spoken.” Everyone applauds you.

Throughout our lives, we’re rewarded for speaking well but not for listening. No one is ever acknowledged or rewarded for being a good listener, and, as a result, people generally aren’t.

Q: What practices can help us become better listeners?

Harville: First, if you want somebody to listen to you, ask them if they’re available. We call this an appointment-making process and it invites the other person to turn off their movie and be available to you. If they aren’t willing or able to do that at that time, make an appointment for another time. There’s not much point in talking to somebody who’s unavailable to listen.

Helen: This sounds kind of formal, but if your partner says, “No, I’m not available now, but I can be available in three hours,” then in three hours you know you’ll have their undivided attention. You’ll know they’re ready to listen because they’ve told you that they’d be available to hear. So you ask for an appointment and then you say what you want to say.

Harville:  Another thing we have discovered that really helps in terms of staying focused is to become curious. If someone is talking to you and you start to feel distracted, when you move into curiosity the brain focuses on the sounds coming toward it and the accuracy rate goes up. 

Helen: And a third practice, the cornerstone of the Imago Dialogue process, is what we call mirroring. One person talks and one person listens. Then the listener mirrors back to the talker what they said. When you say, “If I got it, you said…Did I get it?” your partner can affirm that or say, “No, that’s not what I said at all.” When you start mirroring you realize what a bad listener you are! It’s something we need to bring into our culture and teach each other to do.

Q: Can a relationship work if only one person is willing to work on it?

Harville: If one partner is resistant, we recommend to the other partner to start to do the work. We tell them to get curious about their partner, begin to mirror them in conversation, get out of quid pro quo, and stretch into being vulnerable.

What we find happens over and over again is that when one partner becomes caring, responsive, and curious, about 3 to 4% of relationships will wind up in a divorce relatively quickly. But the rest, that’s 97%, work out. When one partner starts to change their behavior, the relationship changes.

Listening effectively is not just beneficial for us, but is proven to also be incredibly beneficial to our relationships. We encourage you to practice really listening to others this week and see just how transformative it can be.