How active listening can improve your work (and love) life

“In any conversation, try to talk 10% of the time and listen for the remaining 90%.” I heard this career wisdom in my early twenties and it went on to deeply influence my approach to building relationships. Along the way, I developed a bunch of conversational tricks: never break eye contact, wiggle your toes if your mind starts to wander, and repeat back phrases that you’d like to remember once the conversation is over. These hacks served me well as an analyst, a manager, a coach and a writer. But somehow they don’t always seem to make it past the “last mile” – into my marriage.

I love non-fiction books that double up as both introspective and business-oriented. Difficult Conversations, for instance, is about delivering feedback; but it’s really about the uncomfortable beliefs we hold about ourselves. And while The 7 Principles for Making a Marriage Work is about its namesake, our self-sabotaging behaviors can impact all the important relationships in our lives. And recently, SoulCycle co-founder Julie Rice just added another book to the short list: Getting the Love You Want, a book about active listening.

“Nobody teaches us how to be married”

The birth of a child can send a marriage into disarray; according to the Gottman Institute, 67% of couples become “very unhappy with each other” during the first three years of their new baby’s life. And yes, it’s true that while new parents are overcome with love for their baby, it can also be true that a marriage can devolve into a competition for resources – sleep, free time, and attention.

On the Tim Ferris Podcast, Rice explained how she and her husband dealt with this “loss of autonomy” and the ensuing “conflict” in their relationship. When couples therapy proved to be ineffective (“We would just play to win the therapist game”) they bought two copies of Getting the Love You Want. Rice realized we’ve never been taught “this is how we listen.” She elaborated further:

Nobody teaches us how to be married. Nobody teaches us how to communicate with a partner. Nobody teaches us how to communicate with anybody. I don’t remember being in a class in school where somebody said to me, ‘This is how you listen. This is how you talk to somebody. This is how you consider what they’re saying.’

And it turns out that these communication skills can apply to your partner, best friend, and direct reports.

Is there more?

I once did one of those professional personality tests (à la Meyers-Briggs) and scored low marks on Communication. The program’s facilitator gave me a simple formula to improve: “Ask why. Then ask why four more times.”

Rice’s takeaway from Getting the Love You Want inverted this approach, flipping the emphasis away from asking – and towards listening. Rice and her husband began setting aside specific time (an “appointment”) to check-in with each other (emphasis mine):

When you make an appointment and you say it’s your turn to talk, basically, I say what I need to say. (…) Then all that person gets to do is repeat back to you and say, ‘Is there more?’ That’s it. That’s all the person gets to do.

But that’s just the first step. We all know that there’s always more. Rice goes on to explain that the simple, iterative question “Is there more” will open the pathway to deeper communication:

There always is more. It’s never really just about that, is it right? Then you say what more there is. Then they get to repeat it back. Then they get to say, “Is there more?”

Getting to Round 3 of “Is there more” is where the magic happens:

You know what happens at the end of three “Is there mores?” Rather than trying to win the therapist and rather than trying to be right, what you realize is that somebody is suffering about something.

We all suffer

The Buddhist concept of suffering (or dukkha in Pali) is about much more than having a booboo on your thumb. (One could say, it’s actually a giant booboo on your soul – but we’ll save that for another time.) Wikipedia translates dukkha “as the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of mundane life.”

Asking a simple question and then stepping aside gets you away from offering solutions or trying to be right. It’s about letting the other person feel heard. Which creates a space for compassion, trust, and ultimately love.

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