Effective Communication Part 1- Active Listening and Mindfully Engaging

Listening can seem so simple, but people make so many mistakes. Here are 3 key areas of how to shift into more effective communication.

Listening in communication is the most basic of skills and it is the most powerful. We all know how to “listen”, but we sometimes forget to fully engage in active and mindful listening.

People often get caught up in their defensive parts, wanting to defend why they did something, to tell the other person they’re wrong or that they misunderstood, which all result in not truly hearing one another.

Here’s an overview of three key areas to engage in effective, active, and mindful listening and engaging.

Slowing down

The first step to active and mindful listening is to slow down. In direct* communication, people tend to be emotionally flooded and overwhelmed, which triggers their defense system and throws the whole conversation off balance almost immediately. It’s important to be able to slow yourself down by taking a deep breath (or a few) to self-regulate and get back to feeling a bit calmer to move the conversation forward. Taking time to take these deeps breaths, can help reduce the physiological reaction of feeling upset, which can result in a clearer mind and, ultimately, better communication.

*It’s important to also recognize that people sometimes feel that being direct is confrontational, which isn’t necessarily the case. More on that in part two of this blog “Clear Communication

Taking breaks

Breaks are sometimes needed, and let’s be honest, you will most likely need them in the beginning. I sometimes recommend to clients who are new to therapy work, that breaks are recommended: and this is easier done for some than it is for others. Breaks can be a very effective tool when used respectfully and proactively instead of “provocatively” (Real, T. 2023).

What do I mean by respectful and proactive time outs?  Let’s discuss this further.  It means to slow down and take the time to assess how you’re feeling.  Next, it’s imperative to recognize that you’re emotionally flooded and upset or recognizing that the other person may be feeling the same.  Lastly, making space for a you both to take a break or time out to assess your feelings is ok, but remember to setting a time limit for the time out is important.  If you don’t know when you’re supposed to reconvene, then each of you may be left wondering who should start the conversation first.  This could lead to a buildup in resentment especially if one partner seems to “always” be the one to re-initiate conversations or reconnecting after an argument.  A crucial piece to a successful end to a break is that both partners need to be mindful of how they take their separation, meaning how are they working to self soothe.  Often times, people will go off on their own and ruminate about the disagreement (i.e. replaying the events, coming up with additional things they should have argued about, as well as how awful the other person is, etc.).

When you take this space, you should be working on remembering that the person you’re arguing with is likely someone you love or care about, and they probably feel the same about you. If this is a couple/partner relationship, try to remember that you’re a team in life- that you want things to go well for everyone involved. If it’s a family relationship, then trying to remember that family members typically have your best interest in mind. But sometimes this is not always true and, again, if your family members are emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive this is NOT an article to put up with those kinds of interactions and relationships.

The last part to taking a break is to come back and work on the real initial issue. I typically find that when people become flooded, they are completely losing sight of the original issue and compounding the argument with old arguments or frustrations. An example of this is partners who come in and complain about cleanliness or the dishes not being done a certain way and have blowup fights about this. A huge fight like that isn’t typically just about the dishes anymore, but instead about past disappointments, feeling uncared for, remembering that it’s not just this one time or issue, but it’s been many issues and not feeling heard in the relationship (buildup of resentment).

It’s important to come back after the break and be able to try and repeat what the other person’s point was, or what you understood it to be, and work with them to really understand what they meant. All parties in an argument should be working through this active listening, otherwise it can feel one sided and create more issues in the long run if, again, only one person is doing this work to understand the other. It takes everyone in each relationship to put in the work to have a healthy, happier relationship.

Mindful Engagement

Another important piece in effective communication is to have an open and flexible mind. I often find that in therapy it is significantly harder to work issues when one or more people within the relationship is very rigid or unyielding. If you can’t budge a little and at least hear the other person’s perspective (even if you don’t agree with it) then there isn’t a whole lot of room for compromise or moving forward

People who are more open minded and flexible in their perspectives can, at a minimum, put themselves in the other person’s shoes, which can lead to more positive feelings of being really heard, seen, valued, and respected in relationship.

It’s important to work together as a team, no matter what the relational makeup. When you believe you’re a team and you know your voice is being heard and valued, then you can effectively work through many issues together.

Real. T, 2023: Check out the 10 Commandments of Time Outs in a Relationship by Terry Real (2023) for more about how a break or timeout can truly be implemented well.