Listen How You Want to Be Heard, by Sarah Frank Jarvis, LMFT, ATR-BC, CGP

Effective communication is fundamental to the development and maintenance of all healthy relationships. Practicing active listening skills can increase feelings of attunement between partners, family members, and friends. Much attention has recently been given to the application of Attachment Theory in adult relationships, which looks to the importance and makeup of secure and insecure relationships. Attachment Theory was originally developed by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst studying distressed behavior in infants separated from their parents, and further formalized by his colleague Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation” experiment which involved a controlled laboratory experiment for studying and classifying behavior in infants when separated from their mothers. Bowlby’s belief that attachment style remained integral throughout the lifespan, particularly in adult romantic relationships, was expanded upon by researchers Hazan and Schaver in the late 1980s.

Our ability to communicate begins in infancy, where expressing vital needs is essential to survival. The ways we were cared for and tended to by our primary caregivers led to the development of an internal working model (expectations, beliefs, or rules for behaving and thinking) for how we relate to others and how we anticipate they will react to us. In an ideal scenario, the parent can recognize when their child is hungry, in need of a nap, seeking physical comfort, or playful and content. From the infant’s perspective in this scenario, with general needs being met, a sense of security develops as does the belief that they deserve to have their needs met. In adulthood, this child will likely have formed a secure attachment style, going into relationships with the expectation that they deserve to be loved and have their needs met as well as offer the same to their partners, family, and close friends. 

When an infant receives inconsistent, negligent, or rejecting attention from a caregiver they are prone to developing insecure attachment styles that manifest in two main forms. The infant that learns to resort to self-soothing when not having their needs met falls under the avoidant attachment style. In adulthood this person may undervalue the importance of a partner meeting their needs, instead being mostly self-sufficient, and in turn be put off by a partner who looks to them for attention, support, and affirmation of feelings. In contrast, the infant who cried and protested in response to their needs going unmet may develop an anxious-resistant attachment. As an adult, this person may feel anxious about not getting their needs met by a partner, frequently be the one to initiate closeness, and at the same time may feel undeserving of it. For more reading on this subject I recommend the book “Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find- and Keep- Love” by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel S. F. Heller, MA.

The psychological concept of “attunement” is an important component of communication in primary relationships. Attunement is the degree to which a person reacts to another person’s mood, affect, and emotional needs. A highly attuned person is able to gauge another person’s emotional state and respond with appropriate language and behaviors that demonstrate empathy and active listening. In order to increase attunement and security in relationships it is helpful to consciously practice active listening skills. Engaging in active listening demonstrates interest and care in what another person is sharing, which in turn leads to them feeling heard and validated. 

Some ways of practicing active listening are to maintain eye contact with the other person, facing your body towards them if possible, and not interrupting as they share. Asking questions for clarification shows that you are paying attention and interested in what the other person is saying. It is important to also show empathy, if appropriate to the situation, by asking how the other person feels about what they have just shared with you. It can be natural to want to share about a similar experience you’ve had but be careful not to “one up” by jumping in and switching the focus to you, thereby invalidating what the other is trying to communicate and gain acknowledgement for. How you listen is directly related to how others experience you and can contribute greatly to feelings of increased respect and security in your primary relationships. A good thing to keep in mind is that by practicing active listening you are also modeling these skills for others, which can in turn bring about many positive changes in your relationships.

Elana Clark-Faler
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