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Listening Well for Relational Intimacy

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By Deepak Santhiraj, MSW Licensed Clinical Social Worker

relational intimacyWithin the realm of relationships, feelings of intimacy and closeness are fostered through responsive and empathic listening. This relational skill set is at the core of fostering dynamic and critical communication patterns for relational health.

A leading global company on understanding the effects of attention within an increasingly digital age, Microsoft, highlights that the average human attention span lasted 12 seconds in 2000 in contrast to 8 seconds in 2013. This claim is even one second shorter than the average goldfish, notoriously famous for its distractibility, which is about 9 seconds. As addictive technology behaviors become more evident within the digital age, we must take heed to the counsel of Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize Economics winner in 1978: “[What information consumes is] the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Current research studies related to cell phone addiction and compulsive phone usage have indicated that chronic technology use can lead to fear of missing out (FOMO), separation anxiety, and a medical condition known as de Quervain’s tenosynovitis for pain near the base of the thumb due to repetitive hand and wrist movements on electronic devices. There are many research indicators for the highs and lows of relational intimacy related to chronic distraction within the digital age; additionally, feelings of closeness and intimacy between partners continually experience disparity between heartfelt vision for intimacy and the present-tense reality of disconnection.

Current-day research and statistical significance continue to unveil that long-term attentional benefits of regular mindfulness practices help to bridge this disparity between focused pursuit and actual present-tense reality of intimacy. Chronic distraction through advances in technology has a ubiquitous influence upon those that want to foster feelings of closeness and intimacy in relationships.

Here are several practical steps toward implementing responsive listening in your relationships for closeness and intimacy:

      • Become vulnerable and be willing to share your thoughts and feelings that occur throughout the day. This will breed a marketable degree of intimacy that ties you together and forms a unique relational bond – whether the details shared are good, bad, or ugly about the day. Sharing thoughts and feelings throughout the day (i.e. through email, text, phone conversation, or online chat) can foster meaningful connection.
      • Express excitement and engage when someone shares thoughts and feelings by choosing to put the electronics away. Don’t give a sigh and express that “there’s no time for this,” but rather demonstrate your interest.
      • Understand using clarifying statements and questions for reflections as, “So, what you are saying is… Can I make sure I understand you correctly… Can you repeat this again?” These clarifying statements will seek to create understanding within the relationship.
      • Validate their disclosures with statements as, “I can understand why that must be important to you… I can tell that you’re very happy about this… I appreciate how it must have made you feel….” Validation creates respect and value within relationships and fosters mutual understanding.
    • Become caring through deeds and words within your relationships. As individuals within relationships acknowledge that they are loved and supported through statements as, “We are in this together… This matters to me too… I’m here for you – let me know how I can help.”

Poor listening leads to impairment in communication and unhealthy relational dynamics. Within the digital age of chronic distraction and multitasking endless social media notifications, feeds, and instant messages – the “cognitive bottleneck theory” can take place in which learning and attention suffer consequently with too much information processing.  Louisiana State University’s communication experts, Christopher Gearhart and Graham Bodie, acknowledged that students low in the quality they identified as “active empathic listening” had lower scores on a social skills inventory. Essentially, being a poor listener is associated with poorer social and emotional sensitivity. Gearhart and Bodie created a measure that looked into active and empathic listening skills (AEL) and identified them as follow within the questionnaire to represent the quality of empathic listening between individuals:

Sensing:

    • How sensitive are you to what others are saying?
    • Are you aware of what others imply but do not say?
    • Do you understand how others feel?
    • Do you listen for more than the spoken words?

Processing:

    • Do you assure others that you’ll remember what they say?
    • Do you summarize points of agreement and disagreement when appropriate?
    • Do you keep track of the points that others make?

Responding:

    • Do you assure others that you’re listening by verbal acknowledgements?
    • Do you assure others that you’re receptive to their ideas?
    • Do you ask questions that show you understand others’ positions?
    • Do you show others that you’re listening by your body language?

Good actors have mastered these techniques within AEL and demonstrate direct eye contact and focused body language during typically intense conversations among each other. We can look to them as examples for sensing, processing, and responding in active empathic listening. Putting away the cellphone, ceasing to draw and doodle, and sitting relaxed and interested while engaging one another are critical aspects of AEL.

When we clear our minds and demonstrate that we are listening, we will find it much easier to become engaged. Active empathic listening will require more effort at first, but the emotional and relational benefits will soon follow. Within the chronic distraction of the digital age, embracing the manifold and multi-faceted benefits of AEL will promote relational health in a landscape of shrinking attention spans and compulsive distractibility. Telltale signs of those that are not listening can be found in commonplace daily activities, but effective communicators are good listeners as well as good speakers.

With an endless ocean of stimuli that seeks to be engrossing and diverting, it can be worthwhile to ask ourselves how long we want our attention span to become, and which individuals will benefit from improvements in our sustained focus and attention. Instead of aching over emotional distance and distracted preoccupation, we can be brought back into relational intimacy, acceptance, and affirmation. Active and empathic listening welcomes us home to openness, friendship, and peace from being in a country of noise, hurry, and muchness and manyness. Through these active and empathic listening skills, we are invited into the living room of the heart, the kitchen table of true friendship, the dining room of creativity and camaraderie, and the bedroom of exposure and vulnerability – all of which lead us to know freedom and be known to the fullest.

Recommended Resources:

  • Mindful Relationship Habits: 25 Practices for Couples to Enhance Intimacy, Nurture Closeness, and Grow a Deeper Connection by S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport
  • Just Listen by Mark Goulston
  • Relationship Agreements: A Simple and Effective Guide for Strengthening Communication, Reducing Conflict, and Increasing Intimacy to Design Your Ideal Relationship  by Eri Kardos
  • The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships  by Michael P. Nichols
  • I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen

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