March 25, 2023

We all harbor secrets. Some are big and bad; some are small and trivial. Researchers have parsed which truths to tell and which not to.
Verified by Psychology Today
Posted September 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
“The first duty of love is to listen.” –Paul Tillich
Listening is how we forge a relationship. It allows us to be present and open to the other.
But most people don’t really know how to listen: They may hear, but there is already an interpretation, judgment, and criticism being made about what is being said. Or they listen but only think more about what they want to say than hearing the speaker.
True listening involves a skill set and an attitude. Here are some simple rules to follow to improve your listening quality, particularly when sharing happy or exciting things. Knowing how you listen will directly improve your relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Dos for How to Listen
Use curiosity instead of judgment. Often, we listen with a critical ear. We have built-in judgments that snap into place when our partner speaks. This listening style distorts what is being said because you interpret rather than try to understand.
The ‘cure’ for pre-judging what you are listening to is curiosity. Put yourself in a position of wanting to learn more about what is being said rather than evaluating it. Curiosity opens you—judgment separates you. Statements like “Tell me more” and “That’s so interesting, how did you get involved” help to expand and keep the other person talking.
One business-to-business study found that top salespeople spoke 43 percent of the time and let their clients speak 57 percent.i Listening curiously can be profitable.
Celebrate good news. Previously I’ve written about active constructive responding, which involves enthusiastic support for someone else’s good news–while also inviting them to relive the experience–which is the best method. An example of responding this way is: “Wow, that is great that you got the new job. Tell me how they let you know about it!”
When you listen for good things, you and your partner share and bond at a very different level. Research shows that when you can respond like this, it is one of the best and strongest ways to strengthen and improve a relationship.ii
Don’ts for How to Listen
Don’t treat your partner’s enthusiasm with a wet blanket. Passive-constructive responding involves showing people support in a quiet and understated way. For example, “Glad you got the job you wanted” is so understated of a reaction to the good news that it is considered one of the very worst things you can say.iii
An understated response to good news will leave your partner feeling foolish, disappointed, or unappreciated by you. When good news is excitedly shared, show you are happy for them. You may not be enthusiastic about it as they are–or you may have a critical response–but let them know you see how happy they are about it and use your curiosity to get them to relive it. A passive-constructive reply will quickly shut down communication.
Don’t criticize a happy event. Active-destructive responding is when there is a direct criticism that demeans the event. Instead of celebrating your partner getting a new job, an active-destructive response might be: “Any more money you make in the new job will be taken away by being in the higher tax bracket.”
While this may be true and may very well be important information for the person, you’ll want to temper your criticism by making sure you let them know you are happy for them.
Don’t ignore someone else’s joy. Particularly when someone is sharing an accomplishment, achievement, or particularly wonderful experience, don’t ignore their joy by talking about your own. This is known as passive-destructive respondingiv and happens when the event is ignored and quite often usurped by the listener. For instance, if one person shares the good news about getting a new job, you don’t want to answer “I just bought a new car!” as a direct response to the job news. This will leave your partner hanging, waiting to be noticed by you.
An adapted version of this post was published at Infijoy.
i. Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904–917.
ii. Orlob. (2016). Talk less, listen more. Do you know the Golden talk vs. Listening ratio?
iii. Woods S, Lambert N, Brown P, Fincham F, May R. “I’m so excited for you!” How an enthusiastic responding intervention enhances close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2015;32(1):24-40. doi:10.1177/0265407514523545ii.
Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and is on the teaching staff at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works with Martin Seligman. He is a Review Editor for Frontiers in Psychology special section Positive Psychology.
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We all harbor secrets. Some are big and bad; some are small and trivial. Researchers have parsed which truths to tell and which not to.


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