Learning how to listen is one of the most challenging aspects of a couple relationship and yet also one of the greatest gifts someone can give their spouse. Even experienced counsellors and psychologists find it challenging to listen in their own relationships. It’s much easier to listen when our partner complains about work or extended family issues but when the criticism is directed at us it becomes much more personal. Instead of listening we become interested in asserting our own position on the issue and very quickly we can find ourselves ending a heated discussion in which neither of us feels heard or understood.
While it’s difficult to do at times active listening has the power to radically transform most conversations. When we listen it helps the other person to feel heard, understood and respected. Other emotions commonly associated with listening include feeling comforted, closer, loved, validated, appreciated, happier, relieved and supported. Ironically, the more difficult the conversation the more significantly we experience these emotions. This means that those difficult conversations are also terrific opportunities for greater couple connectedness.
So what can we do when we’re in the midst of a difficult conversation and we can sense that defensive reaction inside of us building? Try some of these to help you be a better listener and use the next difficult conversation as an opportunity for greater closeness.
- Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt: Sometimes what sounds like criticism is in fact a request for help. If you can look past the tone of voice often what you will discover is that they are just feeling frustrated or have had a bad day and they want your help. It just sounds like an attack.
- Show that you are listening: It’s one thing to listen but will your spouse actually know if you’re listening unless you actually look like it. That means turning the television off, putting the book down, hopping off the computer and looking at them. It also means commenting and replying appropriately to show that you are taking something in.
- Check the message: Sometimes we think we understand what our spouse is saying but actually we’ve got it wrong. We think we’ve heard this conversation before and interrupt prematurely. It’s always best to check out what it is they’re saying to ensure we’ve got the right message. Say “Okay, let me get this right, what you’re saying is…” before you present your side of the argument.
- Look for what’s behind the words being spoken: Sometimes we get so caught up with what’s at the surface level we can miss the real issue that’s lurking underneath. A difficult conversation about whether we can afford a new item might actually be a conversation about one person’s deeper concerns about the overall financial situation. A difficult conversation about taking out the rubbish bin might actually be a conversation about feeling overwhelmed by household responsibilities.
- When things come unstuck look for an opportunity to repair: Sometimes conversations will still go badly from time to time. A great way to begin repairing the damage is by acknowledging and apologising for your part in it. Saying, “I’m sorry, I think I overreacted, to what you were saying” can go a long way towards a better more helpful conversation.
There will always be times when it’s difficult to listen to our spouse. However, bear in mind that listening isn’t agreeing. It’s just listening and it’s possibly the greatest gift we can give to our spouse: Our genuine willingness to truly understand.