Many couples already understand that listening to each other is critical to building and maintaining a good relationship. On the other hand, too often they equate “listening” with simply remaining quiet while the other person speaks. In their own head they might be thinking, “Oh, I’ve heard all this before.” Maybe they’re busy thinking of the best response before their partner is even done talking. For that matter, their mind might be wandering to plans for a round of golf this weekend. That doesn’t make someone a bad person, but if their partner is genuinely trying to convey something that’s important to them, or to the relationship – it’s a lost opportunity to understand a problem or concern that a partner or spouse really wants to convey. They appear to be listening, but instead they’re analyzing, strategizing, or simply hoping whatever concern or frustration they’re partner is verbalizing will go away.
So what does it mean to really listen?
It helps, for starters, to put the shoe on the other foot. When you’re talking about something that’s on your mind, wouldn’t you want to know your partner was truly paying attention to your words, especially if you’re expressing a true need, a meaningful thought or just wanting them to understand you a little better? Some people complain that their partner “never talks to them” and fear they never really know what their partner is thinking. If yours wants to talk, try not to take that for granted.
If the reason you find yourself tuning out is because you feel your partner is being self-absorbed and does not reciprocate by showing interest in your needs, share that thought-but do so carefully and respectfully. Try saying things like, “I really want to hear how you’re feeling, but in truth, I’m having a hard time right now too. I want to make sure I have a chance to talk as well.” Strike a deal, as silly as it might sound, that you’ll take equal turns expressing your thoughts.
Ask a lot of questions. It not only shows that you’re interested, it helps you understand what the other person is really trying to say. Few of us are born as gifted communicators, and asking questions can help your partner clarify their thoughts while helping you understand better. A common therapy tip is to ask your partner if you’ve heard correctly what they’re trying to communicate: “What I think I hear you saying is… ” We’re not all born as gifted listeners, either, and many misconceptions arise out of simply misunderstanding what the other person is saying. When you repeat back what you think you’re hearing, it gives your partner the opportunity to clear up those misconceptions, which can be critical: Maybe you think you’re being falsely accused of something, or that your partner has expectations you’re not meeting. It’s important that you understand exactly what your partner is asking for. Anything less undermines the point of communicating in the first place.
Try not to “top the story.” If your partner needs to talk about a hurtful experience at work or wherever it might be, telling them you’ve been in similar situations often helps-but sometimes it doesn’t. Sensitivity is key. There’s a difference between empathy, as in “You know, I felt that way once when… ” and dismissal, as in “That happens to everybody (and you should get over it).”
Understand that your partner is experiencing a fresh hurt, frustration or moment of self-doubt. The worst thing you can do is give your partner the impression that his or her problems are “nothing” compared to those of others, including your own.
Ask what you can do to help. This might be the most important advice I can give. Don’t make assumptions. Your partner might not want any help at all; some tend to assume that when someone vents about a problem, it means they’re asking for advice, which might not be the case. They just want to share what they’re going through.
On the other hand, if the problem involves the relationship itself, you need to listen and respond with as much clarity as possible. Are they expressing something specific they’d like to change about the relationship? Is this something you’re willing to do? If not, why? What compromises can you reach?
Don’t get me wrong: listening can be hard work, no matter how much we love our partner or spouse. But following these tips can help clarify the discussions and ultimately benefit the relationship in unexpected ways.