When you and your partner have arguments, do you just talk ‘at’ each other, or genuinely listen to what the other person has to say? Well, there is a whole lot of difference between when you actually listen and simply talk ‘at’ each other.
When couples walk in my door, saying, “We can’t communicate,” one of the things I immediately wonder is whether anyone is truly listening.
With so many of us remaining in various degrees of social distancing, we’re spending more time with those with whom we live than we potentially ever did before. This means that communicating well with each other is more important than ever – where actual listening is going on.
A couple comes to see me, with their chief complaint being, “We can’t communicate.”
What do I immediately start to wonder? “Is either one really listening… or are they talking ‘at’ each other? ”
All too often instead of listening to your partner, you assume you know what they are about to say so you reply to what you think they meant rather than what they actually said. Or you can’t wait to give your opinion so you tune out and start composing your retort. Or you can’t wait to give your opinion so you quickly interrupt with your version of the truth.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The following is a true story that offers a vital lesson in how to actually listen and grow together in a way where both of you learn and deeply understand one another.
An exercise in listening…. really listening…
Jim and Rebecca were attending a group workshop, where they were learning a specific technique of listening. The exercise was designed carefully: one partner talked while the partner listened. The rules or goals for the talking partner were simple: Keep to one topic, and try to travel deeper into their feelings. The goal for the listening partner was to keep their own agenda (ego) out of the way and try to learn something they didn’t know.
It’s much harder than it sounds, especially getting rid of your own agenda when you’re listening. Questions like, “What do you want me to do about that?” Or “How do you think that affects me and the kids?” are strictly not allowed.
If you have trouble imagining this, think for a moment about the questions you asked when you were first dating — when you couldn’t wait to discover who this person you were falling in love with really was. How did he get the way he was? How did her mind work?
Now back to the workshop. Each couple took a turn practicing the technique in front of the other couples, who would listen and then giving support afterwards.
Jim and Rebecca were last to take their turn. Jim said, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“No, I can’t. I don’t think I can say what I’ve been feeling. You won’t understand.”
“I promise, you can. I have watched others. I get this.” The room settled in to listen.
“Okay.” Rebecca took a long breath. “I often wish for your death.“
The room became very still. A couple of tense seconds ticked by. Jim then asked, “How long have you felt that way?” And Rebecca started crying.
She revealed she’d felt utterly hopeless about their marriage. She’d tried everything. Her fantasies about his death didn’t mean she truly wanted him to die, but that she was horribly demoralized and desperate.
Jim absorbed all that she’d said. He listened. And he got it.
The next day, the couple came into the room, laughing. When asked what the joke was, Rebecca said, “We were walking on the sidewalk and Jim was on the street side. A huge tractor-trailer came rolling past. He turned to me, with a wry smile on his face, ‘Now’s your chance.’“
What makes you stop listening… and what you can do about it…
1) It’s easy to assume you know what your partner is going to say. Instead stay curious.
After all, you’ve been together for years, and we can get repetitive with one another. But maybe, just maybe, you don’t know what they’re thinking. Instead, you can realize that you spend eight to twelve hours away from this person every day.
They’re having experiences that you’re not aware of at all. People grow and evolve and they might not be as predictable as you think. Perhaps it would be interesting to stay curious about the life of your partner; they might surprise you.