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Five Steps for Successful Active Listening

I can’t tell you how many times someone is talking to me while I’m on the computer, fiddling with my phone, or watching television. I am halfway listening to what is being said before being stopped with the question: “Jason, are you listening to me?”

I have an internal moment of panic. Then I have to decide whether to take the chance of acting like I’ve been listening and potentially getting it wrong or sucking it up and admitting that I wasn't. Or, sometimes I say something that causes a fight. In either case, I obviously was not listening well to what was being said. And because of that, there is a greater chance of conflict arising.

This is not uncommon and of course is type of communication is happening for couples in Tualatin and Lake Oswego. But what if I told you there is a way to avoid most of the fighting that occurs because of poor communication? Being intentional in listening can save a lot of conversations from spiraling into all out fights. And one of the best ways to be intentional in listening is to use active listening skills. It was mentioned in the blog post Five Ways for Couples to Improve Communication, and I thought I'd explain it further. Here are five steps to practice active listening:

Step #1 for Active Listening for Couples — Stop the Mouth/Activate the Listening Brain:

This feels like it should be pretty standard right? In order to be a good listener, a person needs to stop talking. But this is oftentimes so hard. I confess that I will often go into automatic pilot when talking with my spouse. When we get into arguments or debates, I often start thinking of a response. The thing that needs to happen first is to activate that part of the brain that makes intentional decisions. The first step to active listening is to choose to listen.

Brain Wearing Headphones
Listen with Intention

Step #2 for Active Listening for Couples — Listen to What Your Spouse or Partner is Sharing:

When we fail to listen to what is being shared with us, we are communicating that what that person has to say isn’t important. We communicate that they are not important. When we get out of cruise control and activate our brains to intentionally listen to our spouses and partners, we attempt to hear their words.

The best thing we can do is set down what is distracting us or keeping us from listening, and tune in. When we listen with intention, we communicate that a person matters.

Step #3 for Active Listening for Couples — Pick Up on Emotions:

When you are practicing active listening, you don’t just want to pick up on the words being said. You want to try to hear the emotions behind those words. If your partner is complaining about all the time you are spending on your phone, what they may actually be trying to communicate is that they would like to spend time with you or are feeling alone. If your spouse spent a lot of time making dinner and is upset that you showed up late, the emotion behind the words could be feeling uncared for or unloved.

Don’t just try to catch the words, try to catch the emotions. What are the hurts or fears being shared in the conflict or conversation?

Communication Bubble with Words
Share What Your Partner Shared

Step #4 for Active Listening for Couples — Paraphrase or Summarize Spouse’s Words:

This is the payoff of all the hard work from active listening and improves our communication within the relationship. This is when we really get so show our partner or spouse how much we care. After hearing what our spouse has been saying and picking up on the emotions, we now get to paraphrase or summarize what our spouse has been saying.

Imagine your spouse says to you, “You didn’t take out the garbage last night like I asked and left it for me to do this morning after you left for work.” Sure, you could respond with “Well, your arms and legs are working. And I was tired last night and just forgot.” And perhaps it is all true. But your spouse likely does not feel heard in this situation.

An active listener might reply with, “You are upset that I didn’t take the garbage out last night and that I left for work this morning without doing it. You had to do it even though I was supposed to do it.” By no means is this the end of the conversation, but it is the type of response that demonstrates that you are present and with your spouse or partner in the conversation. Of course, the tone that you use to say it with matters, too.

But the greatest gift that we can give our partner or spouse is that they feel seen, heard, and known. We can do that when we hear their words and validate their emotions.

Step #5 for Active Listening for Couples — Check-In Question:

Finally, to finish off the conversation we want to ask the question “Did I get that right?” or “Did I miss anything?” This not only allows your spouse the opportunity to restate something you may have missed, but it also gives you an opportunity to really understand what the concern is about. This provides you the opportunity to know your partner or spouse better.


Active listening is hard work. It requires patience and intentionality. But it is so worth it. It communicates love. It communicates care. It communicates respect. And it will ultimately save you from a lot of miscommunication and fights. Active listening will make the communication in your relationship a strong point, rather than a weakness.


Wellspace Counseling is located in Tualatin, Oregon and serves Tualatin, Lake Oswego, and the Greater Portland Metro Area. To find more information about Wellspace Counseling, visit the at


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