Listening is the foundation of all good relationship communication.
Many couples I work with often list “communication” as one of their struggles- listening is not as easy as we may think sometimes! Poor listening can lead to partners feeling unloved or unimportant. Good listening can lead partners to feel more connected and can minimize conflict that results from poor listening.
We all know what it feels like to be in a heated discussion and sense our partner isn’t listening. When you ask if they are listening they say, “Yes! I’ve been listening to everything you’ve been saying…” Only then they quickly jump back with arguments to what you have just shared. It’s frustrating to say the least and when this frustration begins to brew so does the conflict.
How is listening different from hearing?
Listening is a choice. Hearing is not. I can hear my husband vent to me all day long but not truly listen to what he is saying or pick up on what he needs. The whole time he is venting I could easily be thinking of many ways to disprove his points. If I am hearing to disprove and win the argument I am not listening. I am focused more on my own thoughts and feelings versus his. Listening means you focus on your partner’s thoughts and feelings. You will get a chance to respond but wait until you have a good understanding of how he or she feels and why.
How does listening work in intimate relationships?
Effective listening takes practice, and I think we sometimes have to sort of train ourselves to shift away from simply hearing to actively listening. To help you shift into becoming a better listener here are three steps to try out to make listening more effective:
1. Listen for what's being said:
It’s often easy for people to switch into lawyer mode to try to find numerous ways to disprove what the other person is saying- to interrogate.
It may seem more natural to do this than to focus on just hearing and taking in what the other person is actually saying. Think of how your listening may change if you took more of an interviewing approach versus an interrogative one. Switch your mindset from the lawyer mentality to the curious listener. It will help put potential defensiveness and interruptions aside.
Your curiosity will keep the focus on your partner and how he or she is feeling and why. You can ask yourself why is he/she upset? What specifically happened to cause him/her to begin to share what is on his/her mind with you? What is it that he or she needs from me? While these may be questions you're internally working to find the answers to, it also doesn’t hurt to ask these same questions if you feel your partner isn’t clear. It's important to uncover all of these answers before trying to jump to solving whatever problem at hand- you may be solving for the wrong problem if you jump too soon.
2. Listen for what's not being said:
Sometimes it takes more energy to clearly communicate your needs to your partner versus just venting and exploding with emotion. It's likely there are times when the affected person shares just the surface level frustrations but may leave the depth of their concerns out.
Be curious about what they may be trying to say but unable. Body language will be helpful here. Is she crying? What do the tears mean?)Is he looking away? Does she feel safe? Does he feel ashamed? Is she fidgety? What may be causing him to feel nervous or anxious? Asking questions about what is not being said can help the other person sense your concern and attention on getting to the depth of the emotion she is experiencing. Notice again that all of your attention is on your partner.
3. Listen to what the other person is feeling.
Sometimes, your partner will tell you specifically how they're feeling, and other times they may not. When I work with couples, there are often challenges with people being able to focus inward and to express “I am feeling (insert emotion here).”
Intense emotions can cause people to be flooded with emotion, which may lead to pointing fingers and defensiveness. Notice that the pointing fingers and defensiveness may mean your partner needs more validation. Although it's still up to them to tell you what they need, you can help them by actively listening well.
When people make it a point to bring something up for discussion they're doing so with the need for some type of validation. Listening for what he is feeling will help you be able to validate his emotional experience. Someone once told me “validation is not agreeing” and this is huge when it comes to listening. If my partner is angry with me for being irritable and I say, “you’re mad because you feel like I’ve been irritable all day” this does not mean I agree that I was irritable. It means I am validating that he is mad and that I have heard and validated his concern. Once those concerns are validated, the emotional flooding can subside and make room for problem solving together.
Here's the hardest part. When we listen, part of what we have to do is manage how we feel so we can put our agendas aside. It may sound weird, but we often forget that we feel upset by what our partners say to us. The key to listening well is to be aware of how you feel, even if those feelings are negative. Then, hold off speaking up about those emotions and keep listening like a curious witness to your partner. Do two things at once: listen and self-regulate.
Listening isn't always as easy as we would like it to be and that’s because emotion is involved. It clouds our headspace. Recognizing this cloudiness in your own mind during conflict can help you focus back on your partner and what’s being said, what isn’t, and his or her emotions in need of caring for. Listening more can open up more room for connection and less room for conflict.