Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

One of the best ways to honor another person is to actually listen to them when they are speaking.

On one hand, you might be thinking, “That’s all I have to do?”

And on the other hand, you (or your partner) might ask, “So why is listening so hard?”

Think back to the last time you had a conversation with your partner, and ask yourself:

• Was I trying to do something else at the same time they were talking?

• Was I listening selectively and tuning out what I didn’t want to hear?

• Was I thinking about what I was going to say as soon as they paused for a breath?

These are just a few examples of what gets in the way of really listening. And it all comes down to not being fully present, not giving 100 percent of our attention. We’re all guilty of not always giving our full attention to the person who is talking to us. So if you find yourself zoning out when your partner is talking to you, you are certainly not alone.

Wandering minds

We live in a world where we are surrounded by constant distractions, and rewarded for multitasking. The result is that we have become accustomed to focusing our attention in multiple directions at the same time (generally unsuccessfully). It’s not easy to quiet our noisy minds and focus on a single conversation. On an especially stressful day, it can feel impossible.

But think about the consequences for your partner, for you, for your relationship. Your partner may feel like what they say isn’t important to you. Or that they’re saying something you aren’t open to hearing. You miss out on hearing something that your partner needs you to know, along with the opportunity to be heard. And not listening, over time, can drive a wedge between you and your partner.

If you or your partner live with a chronic condition, then listening and being listened to can have special meaning. Like having the opportunity to disclose feelings, to vent at times, and to know that your partner cares about you enough to want to listen to what you have to say. Let’s be honest, it’s not always easy to talk about living with a chronic condition, or to hear about it. But that’s so important! Being listened to contributes to emotional wellness which can, in turn, impact how you feel physically.

Listening is a gift you and your partner can give to each other every day. Here’s how:

Focus! Start by dropping whatever you are doing. Put your smartphone away. Turn the TV volume down. Force your mind away from wherever it has drifted and toward your partner.

Paraphrase. This is a great way to help keep your mind focused and to let your partner know you’re listening. As your partner talks, repeat back what you hear. Not word for word, just the basics. Here’s an example: “So your day got off to a bad start. Wow, I didn’t know the traffic was that crazy this morning.” Paraphrasing can also be a good way to make sure you aren’t misunderstanding what your partner is trying to tell you.

Ask questions. Most likely, if you are really listening, a few questions might come up. For example, some additional explanation may be needed, or an important fact may be missing or unclear. You might ask something like, “What time was it when that happened?” Asking questions helps to keep the communication clear. Questioning also helps you to stay focused. It’s also another way of showing your partner that you want to understand.

Use body language. Turn your body toward your partner and make eye contact. Uncross your arms. You might also try nodding as they speak to help you concentrate. Your body language is a signal that you are giving your full attention.

Take notes. Things may come in a conversation that you will want to follow up on. Like an upcoming appointment or event, or something you need to purchase. If your mind is so full that you might forget, then make a quick note. Your partner will appreciate that this is important enough for you to jog your own memory.

And if you can’t listen, be honest. We’re all human. And there are times when, because of the competing pressures of the moment, we just aren’t in a place where we can listen. So when you find yourself in that position, kindly and gently let your partner know, and tell them why. And then pick up the conversation again when you are ready to be fully present.

Give the gift of listening. Its value to the person being heard, and to your relationship, is beyond measure!

When do you catch yourself or your partner not listening? What helps? Share your experience by commenting below.