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How to Become a Great Listener in 3 Simple Steps

This Valentine's Day give your loved ones the most meaningful gift of all.
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Art Credit: Tina Sosna

We know Valentine’s Day as a fully inflated corporate holiday, marked by an endless loop of jewelry commercials, fancy chocolates, and dozens of roses. But the story behind the commemoration of February 14, the day that Saint Valentine was executed by Emperor Claudius II, is really a testament to the power of patient love.

As the story goes, in 287 AD, Claudius “the Cruel”  prohibited Roman men from marrying, preferring instead for them to become soldiers. Bishop Valentinus, not yet a saint but a champion of love nonetheless, performed weddings in secret despite the prohibition. Upon discovering this crime, Claudius jailed Valentinus and sentenced him to death. While in prison, the bishop befriended the jailer’s daughter and healed her of her blindness. Before his execution, he wrote the girl a note and signed it, “From Your Valentine.” Then he was dragged from his cell, brutally beaten, and ultimately beheaded.

Nearly 2,000 years later, Valentine’s Day has become an excuse for regular people to become champions of love—from swapping store-bought cards in elementary school to elaborate proposals in front of the Eiffel Tower.

There is, however, a subplot to Saint Valentine’s story that gets overshadowed by his courageous stance against Claudius, and it is perhaps the more important part of this story. Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter. He sat there in his jail cell and reached out to a girl who was likely friendless and lonely. He talked to this poor girl and best of all he patiently listened to her.

For many, February 14 reinforces their loneliness or perhaps enhances their pride in singleness. The alternative holiday Singles Awareness Day (SAD) and its acronym seem to capture both. The commercialization of the day also brings a fair bit of contempt from those who reject the notion of mass-market sentiment. Regardless, the holiday itself looks very little like the legend of its origin.

What if this year we pulled back the veneer of this pre-packaged Hallmark holiday and focused instead on what it really means to give the gift of love. Whether you’re in a romantic relationship or not, consider giving the gift of becoming a great listener.

Listening is an essential prerequisite for building love and trust between partners. You can become a great listener—it’s an acquired skill like any other. Whether at work, at play, or at home, here are three steps to become a great listener.

01. Commit

Decide and declare that you’re going to develop this critical skill. Set aside specific time to practice intentional conversation. It might be awkward at first, but stick with it. Committing to active listening means intentionally postponing your own agenda. Perhaps this year you can give your ear instead of candies and flowers.

02. Tune In

Tune in to your partner’s world and to how they are feeling. Avoid judgement or giving advice. Cultivate empathy. Hear their pain even if you don’t agree with the details. The goal of being attune is to understand, not to provide a solution. This is harder than it looks. Here’s an idea: Practice listening as though you’re planning to write a novel in which your partner is both the protagonist and the narrator. How might that change what you hear?

03. Be a Witness

The least important part of listening is talking. Indeed, you talking should be a last resort when trying to be a great listener. That said, a big part of listening is witnessing or assuring your partner that they are not alone. That might mean reflecting back what your  partner has said. It may mean asking clarifying questions. I often use phrases like, “Tell me the story of that." And, “Help me understand that a little better.” Or,  “I understand.” Assuring your partner that they are not alone is among the greatest gifts you can give them.

I bet Saint Valentine was a good listener. I imagine him building a friendship with the jailer’s daughter through commitment, tuning in, and witnessing. Surely he had perspectives on the world that her social status, her youth, and her blindness didn’t allow her to see.

This Valentine’s Day, consider following his lead as a champion of love. I guarantee that becoming a good listener will be more meaningful and longer lasting than anything you might pick up at the mall.

The Gottman Institute has published a pamphlet called How To Be a Great Listener, which is a great tool for building listening skills. It contains many of the ideas I’ve included above as well as a whole bunch of others. I give it to my clients all the time. You can buy them in bulk from TGI, but I also have a few extra I’d be glad to send your way. Just send me a note at, and I’ll drop it in the mail. First-come, first-served, of course.

This article has been corrected from an earlier version that said "two centuries" instead of 2,000 years.