It sounds almost banal to say that communication in a relationship is important. It isn’t even clear what that really means.
One exercise that I give couples when they come for therapy is to take turns giving each other five minutes to speak, and then the listener repeats back what the other has said without any interpretation. They speak to each other while facing and making eye contact. This is active listening.
The listener’s job in these five minutes is to simply repeat what their partner has said without reacting or analyzing in any way. Then the couple changes roles.
The first thing that happens is that the speaker begins to feel heard, which can, in and of itself, be a source of relief. It is also true that they are being heard without any commentary from their partner. We know this because the listener repeats what they heard until their partner agrees that what their partner heard is what they intended to communicate.
The listener has the opportunity to see how and when they are reacting. Almost always the listener needs prompting to simply repeat what is being said without going into their reactions to what is being said. They will have their turn to say what is on their mind in five minutes, but in this exercise they must focus solely on what is being said.
This exercise really defuses hot button issues in a relationship if both people are really committed to doing it. My experience is that couples begin to see how their reaction to what is being said can be inflammatory. They also know they will be heard and so when it is their turn to speak their statements are more measured and less accusative.
Listening means we hear what people are saying without going into our story in our minds. Listening is really hearing every word without interpretation, but with understanding.
It can be hard work that is really worth the effort.