Dear Patti,

My husband Michael repeatedly complains that I never listen to him. I don’t think that’s true at all, but I was shocked when my cousin, who I completely trust, agreed with Michael. They both said that I need to learn how to communicate better and listen to others.

I feel that I’m a very direct person and communicate very well already. I get along perfectly fine with most people. Unfortunately, the people I care most about are saying they don’t feel heard. I don’t want to ignore what they’re saying. Could you give me some coaching on how to communicate more effectively?   

  — Kelsey

Dear Kelsey,

Many people can communicate just fine until they hear remarks that trigger anxiety or feelings such as anger or embarrassment. How people interact is very personal, and many, if not most, haven’t been raised to listen to others with full attention and acknowledge their feelings. Once you learn how to acquire and integrate communication skills into your personality so they become your own, you can then see your relationships become closer and more gratifying.

Before we explore how to communicate verbally, let’s look at nonverbal cues such as body language, eye contact, appearance, and how other people use these cues to assess your approachability. Is your body relaxed or tensed? When listening, do you lean slightly forward or hold back? Is your eye contact direct or avoidant? Is your facial expression warm or cold? Are you listening attentively, fully focusing your attention on the speaker, or do you appear distracted, detached, or indifferent? Do you dress and act in a way that conveys warmth, accessibility and sincerity?

To be a better listener, you need to be involved and interested in what the other person has to say, encouraging them to continue through empathic smiles and nods.

Visualize your husband telling you something that’s important to him. Listen attentively until he has finished speaking, and then mirror what he has just said by repeating it back in your own words (e.g., “What I’m hearing is …” or “Sounds like you are saying …”). As a listener, your role is to understand what’s being communicated and acknowledge how your own assumptions and beliefs can sometimes distort what you hear.

Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with his train of thought, you need to respect that his reality is real for him even if it’s not for you. Suppose he looks up and says the sky is dark with grey clouds, but you know that it’s actually blue with white clouds. In a nonjudgmental way, I want you to resist correcting him, and instead try to relate to what it is he believes he’s seeing. Ask yourself: What is it like to see such a sky? Paraphrase what he’s told you and listen thoughtfully to his responses. Focus not only on his words but also on the feelings connected to them. Is he embarrassed, annoyed, disappointed, or enraged? It’s positive to gently seek confirmation of those feelings, such as “That sounds frustrating. Is it?”). It’s not supportive, however, to tell him how he should or shouldn’t be reacting (e.g., “Stop getting frustrated over such a little thing”). If he tells you he feels understood, encourage him to express anything else he needs to share until he feels completely finished. Only after that is it appropriate to state your own views.

Now let’s look at how not to communicate. Suppose he says he’s tired of your sisters’ frequent visits. Try to avoid the following:

1. Advise or instruct: “You need to go out with them more and make more effort to feel comfortable when they’re around.”

2. Defend the other party: “My sisters are genuine, wonderful women and do whatever they can to support us. I don’t understand why you always react this way.”

3. Deny his feelings: “Oh, come on. They aren’t that bad. Just smile when they’re around and don’t make such a big deal of it.”

4. Philosophize: “Everybody has difficult family members. You just need to learn to adjust and deal with it.”

Even if the above responses are somewhat true, they won’t make your husband feel listened to or understood. It takes a lot of concentration and determination to practice good communication skills.   


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.