by Dr. Elliott Kronenfeld

How we listen is a significant skill of intimate communication. We have been told about active listening where we are supposed to nod our head, make a “hmmm” sound, and/or make off hand comments like “interesting” or “I see”. However, when we practice such active listening, why is it that our communication often falls flat, or worse, ends in conflict? Perhaps it is because we overinvest in listening.  It may sound counterintuitive to say this, but do we listen too much? Do we spend too much energy into listening and work harder than we need to? I would venture to say we often do.

The script we have been given is that we are great listeners when we are actively putting ourselves into the story and centering ourselves in the experience of others. We often want to help, advise, confirm, influence, and find other ways to ensure the person sharing knows that we deeply in it. The problem comes in when we are overextending our role as a listener. So, to ensure that listening is done with the appropriate level of investment, I offer four styles of listening:

  1. Babble: Babble is when the person sharing just needs to offload all the noise in their head. They really do not need or want an active conversation. I find this happens commonly at the end of the day when emotional and cognitive processing is challenged. For example, when I pick my daughter up after a long day of school and sports practices and she gets into the car. She just starts rambling about a lot of material that I have no interest in, centered on people I do not know, and I have no relationship with. This time type of listening means that I am just a target for offloading. There is no expectation for me to be involved other than an occasional “that sounds like a lot”. When the talking is done, the conversation is done, and no real investment is needed from me.
  2. Unpacking: Unpacking is when the person sharing does not need anyone to help with advise or direction or opinion. What they want from the listener is just to ask questions so the story can be made more concrete and the story holder can then make whatever choices/decisions they choose. When my husband comes home from work and is troubled, I will invite him to talk. I ask questions such as, Who is impacted? What outcomes would you want? What resources do you have? How does this impact you? What does success look like?” The truth is that I do not care about any of those questions or answers, and I do not have to. The purpose of the listener is simple: offer assistance so that person can pull all the information out of their head and then make their own choices. By not offering opinions, advise, experience, etc., the story holder is able to remain in control of their own situation.
  3. Understanding: In this form of listening, the entire goal is to show that you understand the messages that are being given. It is not the opportunity to explain, share, defend, or in any way put yourself into the center of the story. The premise of this type of listening is I am going to share this with you and all I want back is for you to express to me that you understand what I am telling you. It may require asking questions for clarity and then sharing in your own words how you understand what you have just been told, regardless of whether you agree or like it. If you disagree, do not like it, or have a differing opinion, you can share that in a separate conversation. But, putting yourself in the center of the story is beyond the type of listening that is being asked for at this time. This type of listening can be deeply challenging and requires a high degree of self-awareness and self-control.
  4. Discussion/Decision: In this type of listening, a back and forth sharing of thoughts, opinions, feelings, values, and desires is fair game. Perhaps the goal is to share positionality and/or come to a decision on something. It is in this type of listening that both parties share the listening role and must engage in listening with maturity and a sense of self to identity emotional over reactivity that might derail the process.

What I find interesting is that most of the time, the default is for strategy four, when in reality this strategy is the one that is wanted only some of the time. When I work with couples, I encourage them to open with seeking clarity on the type of listening that is most desired. I want to talk, and what I am hoping for is understanding! or Before you go on, how do you want me to listen? Seeking this type of clarity may seem awkward at first, but once it becomes commonplace, communication can be more effective. Imagine how much better you might feel if your partner could see what an effective listener you are and how conflicts might decrease!


To learn more effective listening, contact Dr. Elliott at [email protected]



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