Do you ever feel frustrated that you’re trying to communicate something to your partner and they’re just not hearing you? Do you try to get your point across but find yourself sucked into arguments over and over? This is a common experience for many people. And really it’s not surprising. Listening is a skill you have to learn and practice.
We tend to assume it’s something simple that anyone can do on the spot. But listening isn’t just as simple as allowing the sound waves to hit your eardrum. Anyone who has functional eyes can see a sign on the side of the road. But that doesn’t automatically mean you can read it! Reading is a skill you had to learn.
Effective listening is more like reading than like seeing. We’re not really talking about just taking in the words someone is saying. We’re talking about the larger goal of helping someone “feel heard,” meaning, feeling like you have not only physically heard what they said but that you have considered it and understood it. And then, in the case of your significant other, you really also want to convey the sense that you actually care about what they said!
This is the goal of Empathic Listening. I’d like to teach you how you can sidestep the back-and-forth arguments and the frustration of feeling like you can’t communicate with your partner. This post will focus on the role of the listener. You’re going to LOVE it. (Haha! This is an inside joke. Keep reading and you’ll be on the inside too in a few minutes.) There is a separate set of skills involved in the sharing part of the equation too; we’ll get to that in a future post.
What Doesn’t Work
There are a number of reactions people have when they hear emotional content from their partners (or anyone really) that are totally natural. Just because they are natural, though, does not mean they are effective. I call these the Category B activities. Some of them seem totally appropriate, yet they tend not to help the situation. Here are some examples:
The first one is a really stubborn one. We all instinctively want to do this when our partner comes to us with frustration or anger, especially when it’s at us. It seems so straightforward – “if I could just explain to her that that’s not what I meant, she won’t be angry anymore!”
Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way. You know this, because you have tried it many times, and somehow it doesn’t tend to resolve the argument. Right?
The reason that explaining doesn’t work is because when a person is emotionally worked up, they are unable to hear you until they feel heard themselves. This is an important point. You believe you have a great explanation for what’s going on, and if you could just convince your partner of it, they would calm down and all would be well.
But until you listen to what they’re saying and convince them that you get it, they simply aren’t listening to you. Sorry. That’s the way humans are. You’re just going to have to hold onto your explanation for a moment while you attend to your partner as we will discuss below. (Or, you could try explaining your point of view again. Let me know how that goes for you.)
Until a person feels heard, they are holding on to their own point of view – often quite tenaciously. The unspoken thought – usually unspoken even in their own head – is that if I accept your perspective, and let go of my own, then my perspective doesn’t count. It’s not real, it’s not correct, it’s wrong. And people will fight very hard to not have their reality pulled away from them. (Think about how fierce political arguments can get, with people literally fighting to hold on to their worldview, often even in the face of evidence to the contrary.)
If you try to make me change my mind about reality, you are setting yourself up for a fight. But if you can convince me that you accept that my reality is my reality, and that you aren’t going to try to take it away from me, I can stop holding onto it so ferociously. I can loosen up and let go a little bit, because I know you’re going to hold it with me instead of taking it away. And now maybe we can have a real conversation.
Importantly, please note that I am not saying you have to agree with your partner, or accept their perspective as the correct reality. You just have to accept that it’s their reality. It’s how they see the world.
If you can’t understand how they are seeing the world, then any explanations won’t hit home. Any half-decent salesman knows you have to understand your client if you want to get them to buy into anything. You can’t just talk about how great your product is; you have to talk about their pain points.
You have to know your client’s world. You have to talk about what the client needs, what they are missing, how they see the problem – then you can talk about how your product solves that problem. In a relationship, you have to know all about your partner’s inner world if you want to be able to communicate your own perspectives, wants, and needs and have them be heard.
I want to circle back to the Category B list for a moment. The presence of some of the activities on this list is quite counterintuitive, I know. It seems like apologizing is a good thing, right? Or if there’s a problem, why wouldn’t solving it be helpful? If your partner is annoyed that you forgot to replace the toilet paper roll, a quick “sorry, I’ll go take care of that right away” ought to be received positively, right?
Here is the critical point: you cannot apologize for, and you cannot solve, a problem that you don’t understand. (See this post for more on this point as far as apologies go.) If you haven’t really listened to your partner and understood what’s bothering them, there’s no way you can offer a deeply genuine apology or solution. But you actually need to even take it one step further: you need to not only understand their problem, you need to convince them that you understand their problem!
How do you do that?
What does work?
I would like to introduce to you my not-very-new-but-nicely-packaged answer to these questions. It’s called LOVE. (Really.)
It would be awfully romantic if I meant that in a “love conquers all” kind of way, but I don’t. (This is in large part because love doesn’t conquer all. Watch this space for a future post on that.) I mean it as an acronym (hence the “nicely packaged’ part), which details the only four activities that fall into Category A. Here they are:
- Reflecting in your Own Words
(The “own words” part is vital, not just because the acronym totally flops without it, but because it importantly modifies the reflecting part. Keep reading.)
When your partner has a problem they want you to hear, whether it has to do with you or not, these are the only four responses you should offer. You may have your own thoughts and feelings to share, but they will be disregarded until you do this first. (You’ve had this happen to you time and time again. Extend me a little credit here and try this out instead.)
Let’s break it down:
Listening means you just listen. If you are interrupting, checking your phone, or thinking about what you are going to say next, then you are not listening. So if you keep your mouth closed but in your head you’re just waiting for your S.O. to stop talking so you can set the record straight, don’t come back to me afterwards and tell me it didn’t work. You weren’t listening.
Put down the phone and tell yourself you are just going to receive what your partner is saying. Try to put aside your judgments and reactions to just hear them out. (I know this is very difficult. If you need to take a break to manage your own reactions, that is totally fair.)
Eye contact is also a good thing (at least in Western cultures), though not strictly necessary. (Side by side conversations in the car can be very productive.) The point is, you have to show your partner that you are focusing on them and just taking in what they say.
2. Reflecting in your Own Words
This step is a little trickier. This is not Repeating. It does not help to Parrot Back What You’ve Heard: “I am really angry that you forgot to get the milk today.” “You are very angry because I forgot to get the milk today.” No. Try that just for pretend with your partner and see how completely lame and annoying it feels even when you’re just pretending.
It’s also not good enough to thesaurus your way through it: “You are highly enraged because I forgot to purchase the lactose beverage today.” Also no.
The point here is that you are not trying to repeat back to them what they said; you are reflecting it, using yourself as the mirror. You want to show them back what they are showing you. What that means is you have to listen (see step 1), integrate what you are hearing into your own self, and then put that back out there to see if you’ve got it right.
If you are doing this, inevitably you will be using different words, because it will be you talking, not you repeating a string of syllables that entered your ear. And it will be your Own Words.
So really, it might be more accurate to compare this to looking into your smartphone when you are trying to check your hair or your teeth. Your phone sees an image and then broadcasts back its own, unlike a mirror, which is just bouncing back the very same light waves.
There are a couple of possibilities as to what will happen when you do this:
- You hit the nail on the head. This is obviously the Stanley Cup of the Reflecting in Your Own Words playoffs (I’m Canadian, run with me here). Your partner nods their head, or says something totally affirming like, “Yes!” or “Exactly.” Move on to step 3, validating.
- You get it wrong. They shake their head or say “no, that’s not it,” or something like that. This is normal. There is no reason that you should right off the bat have a clear understanding of how another human being sees the world. It takes work. That’s what we’re doing here.
It is important to note that you lose no points for getting the wrong answer. So long as you are genuinely trying to understand your partner (as opposed to pretending to listen but really trying to get them to see things your way, or hoping this will end as soon as possible, or doing anything else that centers on you), you are contributing to the improvement of your relationship. The act of trying to understand your partner is a demonstration of love. Do that.
If you got it wrong, you say something like, “okay, sorry I missed it there. Can you try again to help me understand?” Then listen and try again. You can do this many times over, and so long as you are really trying to get it, it counts for a lot.
- You sort of get it. Your partner tilts their head and says, “yeah, kinda.” No problem! You say, “can you help me understand the part I’m missing?” Again, you lose no points for getting it wrong, so long as you are trying and are being sincere.
Note that there are many legitimate reasons you might get it partially or totally wrong, even if you are listening real hard:
- You would have a different reaction to the same situation, and don’t immediately grasp your partner’s perspective or train of thought.
- Your attention got caught on one point and you missed another.
- You and your partner have different meanings for the same words. (Are you both talking about the same thing when you say you’re “upset?” What counts as “yelling”?)
- Your partner didn’t actually say what they think they did.
- Your partner did say that, but upon hearing it reflected they realize that’s not really what they mean.
These are all normal things to happen, and it’s not about who messed it up. It’s about persevering to understand your partner despite the natural gaps between your two brains.
So don’t give up! It will take effort and patience, but the feeling of being truly understood by your partner is so delicious that you will find it worth it. (Often this is where a couples counselor comes in really handy – to help you guys pinpoint where things are going off track and recalibrate.)
There are different definitions and applications of the word validate, but here is what I mean by this. You want to convey to your partner that you understand why they feel the way they do. It makes sense to you. It is valid. (If you do not understand why they feel the way they do, you are still in step 1 and 2. Go back and do it again.)
As I mentioned above, It is crucial to remember that you do not need to agree with your partner in order to validate or empathize with them.
Let’s say you called your partner naïve and this sparked a four-alarm argument between the two of you. To your mind, this is a mildly negative word. But you listen to your partner, and they explain to you that in their world, “naïve” is a very demeaning term.
You do not have to agree that the word “naïve” is on the same level as words one would replace with punctuation marks in a family publication. You just have to understand that your partner views it as such.
It’s not “I understand that this is a very bad word I shouldn’t have used.” It’s, “I understand that in your world this is a very hurtful term.” (Don’t italicize it when you speak – I’m just trying to emphasize the key point for you. If you sound like this when you talk, it gives it a subtext of “…but in the real world, it’s not a big deal and you’re way overreacting.” No good.)
Recall too that you must not try to convince them otherwise, at least not at this stage. Convincing is Category B, remember? You do not want to get into an argument about how everyone in the world knows that blank blank blank. It is a losing proposition. You’ve been there. Skip it.
Validating here means, it makes sense to me, given the way you see the world, that you would feel this way about what happened.
Now that I know you interpreted my text as angry, it makes sense to me that you didn’t respond all day. Now that I know your uncle was horribly attacked by a clown, it makes sense to me that you be would very offended when I say I’m just “clowning around.” I get it.
Getting to this level of understand is also a big relief for you, the listener. Your partner had a reaction you didn’t understand. Getting to a place where it makes sense after all, on some level, can be quite liberating.
Empathy also has a reputation for being hard to pin down definitionwise. I want to use a simple definition of “sharing in someone else’s feelings.” It doesn’t just mean that you understand that someone is sad, or mad, or glad, it means you feel it too.
Have you ever called up a friend and told them about this awful thing your boss or coworker or someone did, and your friends goes, “They did WHAT?!?” They’re outraged on your behalf. That’s empathy.
So when your partner tells you they’re hurt by what you said – you Listen, you Reflect in your Own Words, you Validate, and then you Empathize by feeling that hurt a little bit yourself. You say, “I’m so sorry to hear you’re feeling so hurt by what I said.” (This is not meant by way of apology, mind you, but in our language “I’m sorry” is a way of saying “I feel pain for you” and I think it’s a go-to for many people.) You can also try “I am sad to hear that you are in pain” or something to that effect, but that
And you say it in a way that sounds like you mean what you are saying. This part is very hard to communicate in written words, because tone is so important here, so use your imagination. If your friend just lost their grandmother, you wouldn’t go over to them and say, “sorry to hear you lost your grandma” in the same way you’d say “tonight seems like a good night for Netflix.”
It can’t be cavalier, or blank, or objective. You have to demonstrate you are feeling what they’re feeling. So if they’re angry, your voice should sound a bit tense. If they’re hurt, you should sound sad. If you don’t match what they’re feeling, you’re not empathizing, and it doesn’t feel a whole lot like you really care about the problem.
Understanding the problem is one thing; caring about it is another. You really need to hit both markers here. When your partner feels like you get the problem, and you care about it, then you will find the discussion takes on a whole different character.
Now we can consider looking at Category B. You may at this point find it appropriate to apologize for something – but you may also find that it’s not even necessary. You might turn to solving the problem at hand – but it might be that nothing else really needs solving.
This is not an easy skill to pick up on the spot. It takes practice. It takes being mindful of your own emotions and managing them so you don’t get thrown off course. It takes patience. But the payoff is a relationship with fewer (not zero) arguments, and with a mechanism that allows you to repair things after an argument happens.
It’s really cool.
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