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How To Really Listen—and Be Heard

Experts share tips on how to practice “supportive listening” with your partner to help ease their stress and make them feel heard.

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Not long ago, I confessed to my husband, Tom, that I was jittery about an upcoming meeting. As I deliberated the various ways I could mess it up, he cut me off. “You’re blowing things out of proportion,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.” Then he headed out of our living room, whistling, clearly satisfied that he had taken care of the problem.

He had not. I’ll admit that my disaster scenarios were perhaps a tiny bit dramatic (What if I trip? What if I randomly blurt out something inappropriate?) And Tom was genuinely trying to be helpful. But as I (somewhat forcefully) pointed out later, I would have felt a lot better if I thought he was paying attention.

A new study from Wake Forest University backs me up. Communication professor Jennifer Priem, who studies relationships, used saliva samples to measure changes in levels of the stress hormone cortisol after couples had conversations about one person’s stressful event. She found that when a partner was truly listening, and communicated support in a specific way, they were able to dramatically lower their loved one’s stress levels.

Supportive listening, Priem says, is a skill that can be easily learned. Here’s how to do it.

Acknowledge your partner’s perspective

You may mean well, but making comments like “You should just move on,” or “This really isn’t a big deal” does not provide comfort—in fact, it does the opposite by dismissing your partner’s feelings and making them feel defensive, says Priem. (And if they feel compelled to argue that their problem is, in fact, a big deal, it can loom even larger in their minds—causing cortisol levels to jump even higher.)

“My personal favorite from my own life is ‘Well, you really should have seen this coming,’” says Priem. These kinds of remarks, she says, will likely only shut a partner down.

Instead, acknowledge what they are going through with validating messages, which Priem calls the “off-switch for stress.” Some helpful ones are “I can completely see why you feel the way you do” or “Wow, that must have been hard for you.”

“Validating messages tell people that they matter,” says Amy Kirschenblatt, a social worker at Northwell Health. “And anytime you feel understood and heard, you’re going to be less stressed.”      

“When a partner was truly listening, and communicated support in a specific way, they were able to dramatically lower their loved one’s stress levels.”

Don’t jump in with advice

When our mate is anxious, we want to make it better—and often go into problem solving mode. But when a person is upset, Priem’s research shows that the most appreciated form of support is not a detailed game plan, but simply feeling like someone has your back. “Most of the time, unless it’s an emergency when quick action is necessary, people who are stressed are not open to feedback and don’t have the cognitive ability to work through options,” she says.

So instead of immediately troubleshooting, allow them to talk. As Kirschenblatt puts it, “Some people just want an opportunity to vent, and spew.”

Unless you are being asked for advice, hold off. “It can be misconstrued as patronizing, like they don’t know how to deal with it themselves,” says Priem, “or suggests that you don't understand what your partner is experiencing.”

If you’re itching to give some advice that you think might be genuinely useful, first ask, “Would you be open to a suggestion?” If the answer is no, hold your tongue.

Ask questions to help your mate work through their emotions

If it seems as if your partner needs prompting, try some techniques practiced not just by psychologists, but also by the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit when they’re called on to calm agitated people. Gary Noesner, who headed the unit for a decade, says that one stress-reducing technique the FBI uses is called “emotion labeling,” in which you help someone figure out how they’re feeling. Don’t use definitive language in case you miss your mark; use phrases such as you sound as though and you seem as if until you hit it.

Another FBI-sanctioned way to demonstrate you’re fully listening is to offer minimal encouragements such as “Yes” and “I see,” or paraphrasing, in which you merely restate the person’s message in your own words. (“So you’re worried about something going wrong in the meeting.”)

Yet another technique is called mirroring: repeating the last few words of your partner’s message. If he or she ends on “…and I’m freaking out,” simply say “…and you’re freaking out.” Noesner says this builds rapport and is disarming.

Priem says you can increase the sincerity of your message even further with nonverbal cues. Maintain eye contact. Hold your partner’s hand. Lean toward them. Nod. And if you sense that they don’t want to talk, simply sitting quietly with them in sympathetic silence can also calm anxiety.

“You may mean well, but making comments like "You should just move on," or "This really isn’t a big deal" does not provide comfort.”

Be specific

Priem says that the fastest stress recovery occurs when you give “explicit messages” that let your partner know you’re truly listening and that you care. When people are under stress, she says, they become more attuned to threats in their environment as a survival instinct. That means they’re less able to see behaviors and messages that indicate concern—and have to work to interpret those messages. “So the more specific you can be, the better, generally,” she says. "'You're always great’ isn't as helpful as ‘You’re a persuasive person and express yourself well in meetings.’”

Avoid asking “What can I do?”

This backfires, says Priem, because people who are stressed don’t know what will help, which is one reason why they’re anxious. Asking them to help you help them only frays their nerves further. “The best partner will look for small or large ways to ease the burden, and do them,” Priem says. If your spouse is overwhelmed with pressures at work, find a way to take a nagging task off their plate. Make concrete suggestions, such as, “Why don’t I take the kids to the park after work and you can just relax in the quiet house?”

Helping to decrease stress levels by utilizing supportive listening techniques can be good for their overall health, says Priem. Chronic stress is associated with a range of health issues, from depression and anxiety to common colds, headaches and more serious conditions like heart disease. Not only that, these methods can prevent stress going forward, Priem says. “If you believe you’re in a relationship in which, when things happen, you can count on your partner to support you,” she points out, “you may experience less stress to begin with.”

In Tom’s handling of my meeting jitters, Priem says a more explicit support message could have been, "I know this meeting is really important to you (validation of feelings). You've done so well in the past (bring up specific examples here to make the message more explicit). What are your biggest concerns? (This shows interest and opens the door to discussing my feelings more).”

Had Tom done this, I would have calmed down—and I wouldn’t have had to obsessively worry that I was going to spill coffee on myself during my meeting. A win-win, in other words.

Next Steps and Useful Resources

  • Are you struggling in a relationship or have an issue you want to talk about? At Northwell Health, we don't just treat physical problems. Make an appointment with a mental health professional. We're here to help.
  • Is your relationship suffering because of your partner's sleep habits? Find out why more couples are strengthing their bond by sleeping apart.

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Published August 21st, 2018
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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