Have you ever noticed the degree to which you feel understood in an intimate relationship is dependent upon the mood and presence of your partner?
You say something of importance to your spouse, and they either take it in with a present mind, or they don’t.
Listening is a part of meaningful communication
When your partner doesn’t hear you, usually they are not listening, or they are having an inner reaction to what you’ve just said, which is getting in the way of hearing you.
Your words prompt an inner reaction in your partner’s thoughts, and they are thinking, consciously or not,
how is what you are saying going to affect me?
Especially when it’s something they don’t want to hear.
Miscommunication and a missed opportunity for communication
So, they miss what you are trying to communicate because they are focused on their own internal dialogue, which creates a disconnect between the two of you.
It’s a missed opportunity for understanding and empathy.
You know they aren’t listening because you have to repeat yourself, or they say something insensitive that completely misses what you were trying to convey about a thought, feeling, or idea you wanted them to understand.
Far too often, people underestimate the power of listening skills in a relationship. Especially a relationship with someone you see and talk to every day. We tend to take advantage of those we claim to love, simply because they are always there; by our side, sharing our space, sharing our bed, eating nearly every meal with us. I would argue these are the relationships we need to honor with our most present self, and that includes listening attentively.
Listen with your whole being
Not just half-way listening while you’re doing something else, but showing up fully, looking at the person speaking and hearing what they say without thinking about how it affects you.
Turn down the volume on your own thoughts and switch the channel from “me” to “you.”
When our partner says something we don’t agree with, or threatens our sense of self, or challenges us in some way we didn’t see coming, we focus on the emotional impact it is having on us — and not on the words our partner is sharing — their experience.
We completely forget this person is separate from us with their own thoughts and feelings that may not align with ours, 100 percent of the time.
We become laser-focused on the perceived impact their words have, instead of what our partner is trying to communicate. This is a huge missed opportunity for a deeper connection.
Lately, when tension comes up in my relationship, I’ve been trying something new, listening, and not reacting.
My partner said something to me the other day that I decided not to get upset about, that I easily could have gotten upset about. His words weren’t mean, but accusatory. When he spoke, it sounded like he was blaming me for something. He was blaming me for something, that is how the conversation started anyway, and it caught me off guard.
My inner meltdown prevented me from truly hearing him.
I started to defend in my head, sharpening my rebuttal to prove what he was saying was not accurate. I was coming up with a response with the precision of a trial lawyer in court ready to defend myself and why he was wrong.
And then, I became aware of my thoughts.
I stopped my thoughts from racing, quieted my mind, and just listened.
When I decided not to take it personally and hear him out without reacting, I was able to listen fully.
I took a deep breath and said, “tell me more.”
I’m not suggesting this is easy. It isn’t.
It was scary because I didn’t know if I wanted to hear more of what he was trying to tell me. He was struggling with something, and I didn’t think I could handle it. I didn’t want to handle it. I didn’t want to hear it, I was struggling with my own stuff.
Instead of defending my stuff and my position, or what I usually do, try to fix it immediately, I decided to be present.
I put everything I was working on away.
I put my phone down.
I engaged fully by listening, instead of allowing my brain to scream, “Fuck, how will this affect me?”
I thought about him.
I heard what he was struggling with, I really heard him.
After he talked uninterrupted, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything for a few days, which I think caught him off guard. I believe my silence stunned him into looking at his responsibility in what he was grappling with and noticing his part in it.
If you only knew how hard this was for me. I like to solve things right away, even other people’s emotions I have no control over. And I can be relentless with those I love, especially if I think I’m right.
Mirror your partner
When I continued the conversation with him days later, I didn’t say anything except for repeating what he had told me, starting the conversation with, “So what I heard you say was…” and mirrored back to him what he said a few days earlier, and that was it.
He felt understood immediately. And then I asked him, “How can I make this a win for you?”
Ask what a win looks like for your partner
This is a strategy I recently learned at a conference I attended. It totally works, maybe not every time, but it worked this time.
The key is you must remain calm, and be willing to give something you may not want to give on. My partner was able to articulate what a win would look like for him in this conflict, and I was able to give it to him (compromise).
If I hadn’t been open to listening to what he needed, I wouldn’t have been able to help him, it would have been harder to see a compromise. Because he felt understood (and I had empathy for where he was coming from), we are much closer for it.
Win the process
In most relationships during a conflict, people are fighting over their identity within the relationship, not over the outcome. It’s really about the process of fighting.
Win the process.
What does “winning the process” translate to in conflict? What it really means to most people, whether they realize it or not, is coming away from a disagreement feeling seen, heard, and respected. You win that in winning the process, and that is valuable in a relationships that last.
When you win the process, it means you mutually respect one another even when times are tough.
Be as passionate about listening as you are about wanting to be heard. — Brené Brown
More often than not, your partner wants to walk away feeling like they were treated the way they wanted to be treated — with respect.
When you turn away from essential relationships in your life — when you don't listen — you turn off a significant source of meaning in life. If you learn how to manage difficult conversations with your partner, you will improve your relationships with them, deepening your connection.
Listening is one big part of sharpening relating skills with those you love; it is the first part of winning the process.