With Valentine's Day coming up this week, there are people scrambling for gift ideas: jewelry, perfume, dinner someplace special, and cards that are loving, funny or flirty. After several powerful hours spent this week with couples I am seeing for emotionally-focused couples counseling, I've been thinking that there are two most significant gifts you can give in a relationship.  They are actually free. They are listening effectively and well to the other person, and speaking up with your partner to reveal more about yourself, your emotions and interior life. 

We often don't get trained growing up to listen very well. I find that many people may pause or stop speaking, but they are not actively listening from the heart. Try to remember: who are the people in your life who have REALLY listened from the heart? They will stand out. Did you have a parent who really listened? Were your parents too busy with work or their own problems?

Even if you've never had someone who really listened in your life, it's a learnable skill. You can be the first in your family or in your relationship.

It's important to do some self reflection about yourself as a listener. Do you make eye contact with your partner when they are speaking with you? Can you put away distractions? Do you interrupt? Do you ask questions to more deeply understand something the other person is expressing to you? Do you summarize what they have expressed to make certain that you understand? Can you be honest if you do not have time to listen and ask to meet up again later so that you can listen more completely?

Here are the keys to being an exceptional listener:

1. Stay calm. Don't get defensive or cross-complain. Try not to overreact or take it personally.

2. Ask questions to deepen your understanding. Develop a curiosity about the other person. You don't know it all about your partner, and you never will. That's what keeps things fresh and interesting.

3. Remind yourself to stay open, and not get upset. This way you can support your partner in sharing more with you. They will shut down if you get reactive.

4. Express empathy. Put yourself in your partner's shoes. Imagine how they might be feeling about what they are expressing. Respond with what makes sense about how they may be feeling. You can hold on to you and still empathize with their feelings. It will help your partner relax with you to know that you empathize with them. They will feel more partnered and less alone.

5. Recap. As accurately as you can (without any spin), restate in your own words what your partner has shared with you. Ask if you have understood correctly. Ask if they wish to tell you more.

Doesn't being listened to this way by someone you love sound like it would feel wonderful? It does! I have seen couples visibly soften with each other, feel closer, and be moved to tears with this kind of listening.

The other key relationship building skill is learning to initiate conversations----even difficult ones---- and reveal one's self. What's the best way to do that?

1. Ask your partner for a time to talk. Ask them to be your active listener (as above). Make sure your partner is engaged and ready.

2. Pick one, and only one, topic to focus on. Describe what you want.

3. Share your thoughts and your feelings. Go for the vulnerable feelings underneath, such as sadness, loneliness, rejection, hurt, guilt, etc.

4. Avoid accusing, name calling and blaming. That will shut your partner down or make it nearly impossible for them not to get defensive. Focus on your own part.

5. Be open to learning more about yourself. See what you can learn about how you react, feel, and process experiences.

Having great relationships isn't just about finding the right person or buying them the best gifts.Truly great love relationships are where you challenge yourself to grow emotionally, listenmore deeply from the heart ,and learn to speak up and reveal more of yourself in ways that allow your partner to get closer. Understanding someone you love and their vulnerabilities, and having them understand you is about the best gift I know of.