An important aspect of any marriage is a strong friendship. But what does it actually mean to be a good friend to your partner?
One crucial aspect is the ability to listen well. But how does one actually do that?
Think of a time when you felt really listened to… What was the other person doing that made you feel listened to? Was it something about their body language or attitude that made you feel like they really cared about what you had to say? Or was it the fact they seemed to really get what was troubling you by the way they responded?
Listening is a Sacrifice:
Most people don’t really know how to listen well. Listening is a sacrifice one makes for the other person; it is about the other person’s need not about my own needs
Many people prefer to talk and be listened to – to receive understanding - rather than to make the sacrifice of listening. Listening is a selfless act of giving rather than receiving and the purpose is to make the other person want to share and keep talking, not to take something from the conversation, or to get something off your own chest. Save that for another time…
So how does one really listen well? Here is my list of Do's and Don'ts...
NOT to Do:
Don’t give advice, make suggestions, or tell your partner what to do:
Although this is tempting… keep the focus on your partner and their own reality. Advice is cheap and often rooted in our own values and preferences, so when you give it you inadvertently make the conversation about you, what you know, or what you would do if you were in the other person’s shoes. Unless your partner is coming to you directly for advice, try to suspend problem-solving, and instead try to really understand their dilemmas and feelings as they see them. Most people can come up with things to do on their own once they fully articulate the ins and outs of a problem and likelihood is it’s going to be something different than what you might think of since they have different values and priorities than you.
Don’t interpret, analyze, or be logical:
Logic takes the conversation away from the subjective reality of your partner and can be a really quick way for your partner to stop sharing. Try to set aside the idea of an “objective reality” and try to instead really get the subjective logic of your partner. As Sue Johnson has said, "I have never met a person whose feelings did not make sense once I understood how they viewed the world". Until you do understand this world-view, however, you might initially judge what you are hearing through your own filter of what makes sense. In fact you partner may seem completely irrational through your own eyes, but rather than get them to see things your way, or point out flaws in how they interpret events, instead ask: Why is something bothersome to them? How do they see the world such that they feel the way they do? If your partner is talking about a conflict with another person, it is not good listening to try to make your partner see things in a different way or consider other options for why the other person acted the way they did. This can shut down a conversation really fast as it tends to make your partner feel like their view of reality does not make sense to you and like you can't relate.
Don’t reassure or cheer the other person up:
Although tempting, listening well is not about getting the other person out of their sad, frustrated, or not so pleasant emotions. A good listener makes room for all emotions – and the best way to do that is to not want to change them. Saying “oh, you’ll be alright” when your partner shares their work dilemma might seem like the kind thing to do, but it ends up conveying that negative emotions or strife should not exist, and it minimizes or invalidates the feeling. Ironically, by allowing these unpleasant emotions to be honored, preserved, and validated, they become less intense and bothersome. As Mr. Roger's would point out "Everything mentionable is manageable". To share a rotten feeling with someone else by staying present and not minimizing it offers comfort and relief. Your partner ends up feeling they can bring all facets of themselves to the conversation without feeling wrong. This in turn conveys that you can accept them as they are.
How to Become a Great Listener:
So now that you know what not to do, lets have a look at what to do:
The fastest way to make your partner want to share with you is to convey interest in what they have to say and how they see the world. The best way to do that is to be fully attentive and not distracted. Turn off the TV, put down the phone, and try to really focus on your partner. Convey to them: For the next 10-15 minutes (or more) I am all about you; you and your issues are the only things that exist. Then exert all your mental energy to really try to get the essence of what your partner is trying to say. Keep your body and head turned towards your partner, nod, let them know you are following along through simple sounds like “hmm”, “ah”, “mm-hmm”, ask follow-up questions that keep the focus on your partner’s experience, and most of all give your partner time to talk without interruption. As you can see, good listening is often more non-verbal than verbal: stay quiet and yet convey that you are there following along with every word that comes out of your partner’s mouth. The goal is to make your partner want to keep talking and sharing by making them feel they are your focus and you want to hear what they have to say…
How do you make your partner know that you are following along and really get them? The best way is to make understanding statements. To teach you what that means it is often helpful to go through a two-step process.
Step 1: Guess what your partner feels or means and put it into a question. For example, if your partner is talking about being stressed out at work and you gather from what they are saying that they have too much on their plate, your question could be: “Do you mean that you are feeling stretched to your capacity?” If they are complaining about politics and you gather that they are frustrated with how things are going nationally, your question could be: “Do you mean you are pretty frustrated with how our country is being run at the moment?”
Step 2: Now that you have the hang of making educated guesses about how your partner experiences the world, you can change your educated guesses from questions to simple statements. This will help the conversation flow better. For example, instead of saying “Do you mean that you are feeling stretched to your capacity?” which is your educated guess, you simply drop the stem “do you mean” and say: "You feel stretched to your capacity".
Speaker: I have been feeling a little bit down recently and I don’t quite know why
Question: Do you mean you are confused about why you are feeling down?
(converted into) Statement: You are confused about why you are feeling down
By dropping the stem and turning the question into a statement you help the conversation flow more easily by cutting out the superfluous part. What you are left with is an “understanding statement” which is also called a “reflection” because it mirrors back in the simplest way what you partner might be feeling or experiencing. By holding up this mirror your partner will feel seen exactly as they are and will know you get them.
Even if you get it slightly wrong some of the time, your partner can easily correct you, for example:
Speaker: I have been feeling a little bit down recently and I don’t quite know why
Statement: You are confused about why you are feeling down
Speaker: No I guess I know why, I just haven’t had enough time to think about it
Statement: Oh, so you are kind of figuring it out as you speak
Speaker: Yes I think it has something to do with not feeling like we are as connected as we used to be…
Summary: The Simple Skills of Great Listening
Now you know the simple do’s and don’t of giving your partner the gift of listening. Best way to perfect the skill is to practice and perhaps even get some feedback about how well you are hitting the target. Just follow the 3 simple practices below and see how your partner responds to you:
>Pay complete attention and let your partner see or feel you are listening
>Keep your own “stuff” out of it
>Make understanding statements
Will it feel a little foreign or inauthentic at first? Perhaps - but that is part of learning any new skill... With time it can become a more natural part of how you listen and it will almost certainly bring you and your partner closer...
You can use the following score sheet to practice your listening skills (click on image to access full sheet):> View Reflection Sheet