Shut Up To Improve Communication Skills! Marriage and Parenting Advice From a Family Mediator

dog wants to know how to listen - improve communication skills from a family mediatorI used to interview prospective staff for a residential treatment program before I became a family mediator.

Whenever I asked them to describe qualities that would make them a good child care worker I was invariably told something like, “I love to help people and I’m a GREAT listener.”

Yet, when I would walk in to a room while they were working with an upset resident I would hear their voice more than that of the student.

Hmm. Curious.

Do you know folks like these newly hired child care workers who proclaim to be great listeners but don’t act the part?

I bet you do.

Haven’t you noticed that lots of people who declare themselves to have great listening skills tend to:

  • Dominate conversations
  • Interrupt
  • Talk about themselves…a lot
  • Make assumptions about the other person
  • Give advice very quickly
  • Repeat themselves…repeatedly

Great listeners?


These folks are great talkers!

A Truth About Communication Skills

Here’s the rub.

Talking at someone has nothing whatsoever to do with listening to someone.

The two are not even in the same ballpark!

Yet for some reason good talkers usually think they are good listeners.

These great talkers may like to help others.

Take the child care workers.

When they would tell me in their interviews that they wanted to help kids and were great listeners they were speaking from the heart. They truly meant it.

And when I talk about my dream of playing shooting guard for the Boston Celtics I mean it too! But just because I am motivated to play for the Celtics, I don’t have the shooting, passing or dribbling skills to pull it off (and if you know me, you’re probably laughing).

Helping requires skill too.

And one of the fundamentals is listening.

Listening is a skill that can help people far more powerfully than any amount of chatter.

Even if it’s well-intended chatter.

Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. Almost all of us from time to time could listen better. That goes for this divorce mediator as well!

Sometimes thinking we are a good listener is really code for being a great talker!

My Family Mediator Listening Litmus Test

If you hear yourself utter any of these phrases, consider them warning signs that your listening skills are of the talking variety.

  • That happened to me when I…
  • You know, all you need to do is…
  • You’ll be fine…
  • Oh, you’re not going to believe what happened to me last week…
  • That reminds me of…
  • I have a friend who went through the same thing and she…

See Yourself Here? How To Improve Communication Skills That Will Help Your Marriage and Parenting

If any variation of these type of statements come out of your mouth try one of the following tips:

  • Shut your mouth! Seriously, STOP talking!
  • Don’t assume you know what is going to be said and keep an open mind
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Ask a question for clarification purposes…only after the person pauses first
  • Remind yourself that “it’s not about me right now” and focus on the other person
  • Remember how crummy it feels when someone talks at you when you just need someone to listen
  • Focus all of your energy on what the other person is saying, not on your watch or someone across the room
  • Do not impose your solutions on the other person — if they want your suggestions they will ask

And then, after all of that, pause for a moment.

Take a breath.

And then take pride that you truly helped your kid or spouse.

What other suggestions do you have to improve listening skills?

If you comment below I promise to LISTEN, just as any good family mediator should!

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About the Author ()

I help families resolve conflict through family mediation and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. My services include mediation for co-parenting disputes, marriage problems, separation and divorce, parents and teenagers, and family conflicts. The goal of my mediator's blog is to help teach or remind readers of helpful communication and conflict resolution techniques that can be used in their relationships. I live in Natick, MA with my wife, son and dog and mediate throughout the Metrowest Boston region. Please note that my name is spelled Ben Stich, not Ben Stitch.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Richard Cohen says:

    Hi Ben. This is a great topic. People don’t realize that they will get more of whatever it is they want if they talk less and listen more. Keep up the great work.

  2. Ben Stich says:

    Thanks Richard — seems so simple, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s so hard even for the best of us!

  3. Anne Lafleur says:

    I love the specific examples of phrases to use (and not use)! Often I find when I’m feeling compelled to talk it’s because I am uncomfortable with something the other person is bringing out in me, and just want to fix the “problem”so that it will go away and not bother ME any more. So along with shutting up and taking a deep breath, it helps to remind myself that I — and they — are both okay.

    • Ben Stich says:

      What an interesting take, Anne. You’re right, of course, that sometimes we interrupt due to our own discomfort. Perhaps we can call that veiled help — it appears as if one is trying to help the other person but the underlying motive is to help oneself by escaping the uncomfortable conversation. I hadn’t thought about it from that point of view before. Thanks for sharing, Anne!

  4. “Listening is one of the greatest gifts you can offer anyone. We all need to believe we have been heard and being heard means being valued.” I always share this with my mediation training classes.

  5. Listening is such an important component in any relationship – be it family, friend or client. It creates trust and is an essential ingredient to healing and change.

    • Ben Stich says:

      That is absolutely true, Theresa. It is so healing to feel heard and understood.

      Thanks for contributing and please do again!

      • Thanks Ben. I have a coaching and healing practice and when clients feel heard they are willing to go deeper in our together, as they feel safe. When they feel heard, they are more willing to share. When they don’t, they close the door. As service providers, It’s up to us to do our part in keeping the door open.

  6. Lisa Hancock says:

    Great article and advice Ben. I am a mediator as well and primarily work with churches and their staff in conflict. When I’m “listening” and find myself trying to fix their problem, I say to myself, “Lisa, get out of the way.” That phrase alone reminds me this is not about me and my solutions to their problems. I can only pretend to know what’s best for someone else. I can then be more present and truly listen with both my heart and head.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Sounds like you do some great and important work, Lisa!

      Having a mantra is a great idea to stay focused and bite your tongue when you have the impulse to blurt something prematurely. Thanks for the suggestion and please contribute again!

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Thanks, Ben. Great topic. I find it difficult, sometimes, to just listen when I want so much to offer help.

    • Ben Stich says:

      I can relate, Alan. It’s hard to bite the tongue sometimes, especially when you think you know “the answer!” Which, of course, is usually wrong… 🙂

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation!


  8. Tracie Sarkar, LCSW says:

    Thanks Ben! Even us good listeners need a reminder and wake up call when we are not as good as we think we are and to get us back on track! Tracie Sarkar, LCSW

    • Ben Stich says:

      Agreed! I often find myself making the same mistakes I encourage others to avoid — reminders can be very grounding. I am thrilled that you found this post helpful. So glad you joined the conversation — come back anytime!

  9. Chuck Hill says:

    I like your post Ben, it reminds me of something I was told years ago: “listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk”

    • Ben Stich says:

      Love the expression, Chuck! It really sums it all up so concisely. Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion, Chuck. Hope you do again!

    • Eric says:

      Wow Chuck, I have never heard it put that way and I think your comment would really challenge so many to think twice about patting themselves on the back for being great listeners simply because they kept their mouth shut until it was “their turn” (myself included!)

  10. Stuart Baker says:

    I find it takes some effort to LISTEN, want to really know what it is like for the other person, and be a vessel that can hold their story, their pain and challenge. I have often been told that my listening helps people feel better and relieved, and may help them see themselves and their situation better, yet I still have to work at it. I keep repeating the old saying that we have one mouth and two ears for a reason. I do find that listening deeply can be amazingly rewarding and expansive, for all concerned.

    Real good article, Ben. Thanks

    • Ben Stich says:

      Thanks for your important comments, Stuart. Like anything, listening requires effort, practice, mistakes…and still more effort. You are absolutely right. Thanks so much for commenting and I hope you do again!

  11. Edward Madden says:

    I often tell clients there is a difference between hearing words and listening to words. When one hears words one tends to react (often emotionally) based on ones own use of those words, but when one listens, one can gain an understanding of the way the other person uses the words and can glean an understanding of what the other person is actually saying, Then one can respond based on understanding rather than emotion. Hearing is easy, listening is hard.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Hearing IS easy and listening IS hard, especially when what is said strikes an emotional cord. But mastering what you describe does allow one to respond from a place of understanding. I had that exact situation today, in fact! Someone wrote an email to me that got my hackles up. Granted this is in writing and not verbal but I had to check my emotions and try to understand what the other person was really saying. And they were saying they felt left out of a conversation. This allowed me to respond effectively rather than emotionally.

      Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion, Ned! Hope you do again in the future.

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