When couples come into my office complaining about having communication issues, it usually doesn't take long for me to figure out that they are both able to communicate just fine. They are both able to get their point across without any problems (which usually involves criticizing, blaming, or yelling). Their problem lies in their inability to listen and understand what their partner is trying to communicate. This leads to defensiveness and stonewalling which leads to shutting down the conversation. Once we get defensive, we stop listening. It's also important to remember that we don't have to agree with our partner to be able to listen. The ability to truly listen has no bearing on whether we agree with the other person or not. You are simply taking in what they are saying, and asking questions to clarify and understand. Here are 5 things you can do to become a better listener.
1. DON'T GET DEFENSIVE
As stated before, once we get defensive, we stop listening. Defensiveness can mean interrupting, making excuses, denying responsibility, "yes-butting", sighing, eye-rolling, crossing your arms, turning the table back on your partner. While there may be a legitimate reason for getting defensive (your partner is criticizing or blaming you), it is a sure-fire way to kill a conversation. While it might benefit you in the short-run, think about how you want to be treated the next time you need to share something important with your partner.
2. REMOVE DISTRACTIONS
If there is one thing you could do to make your partner feel like you are really trying to listen to them, it's to remove distractions. Turn off the TV, put your phone down, go to a quiet room where your kids aren't around. Nothing communicates to them more that what they have to say matters to you when you remove the things that prevent you from providing your full attention.
3. ASK QUESTIONS
We all want to feel like our spouses, family members and friends understand us. It's a basic human need. When we feel understood, we feel connected to and loved by that person. Again, we don't have to agree with what the person is saying to show that we understand where they are coming from. This is what helps us show empathy. We can put ourselves in the other person's shoes and feel how a certain situation must feel to them. One of the ways we understand is by asking questions. It's obvious that when we don't understand something, we ask a question. We do this all day long in school or our job. But for some reason when it comes to trying to understand our spouse, we freeze up or get scared. We don't always know the right questions to ask. Here are some examples:
1. Can you tell me more about that?
2. Has this happened other times in the past?
3. What does it feel like to experience that?
4. Do you remember experiencing this in your childhood?
5. What's the story you are telling yourself about me/us?
4. DON'T TRY TO FIX THE SITUATION (right away)
It's easy to want to jump to the end of the conversation and ask what needs to be done to fix the problem. Both men and women can be guilty of doing this. However, in doing this, we miss out on the sweet opportunity to really connect, help our partner to feel understood, and develop emotional intimacy which is crucial to healthy relationships.
Sure, there may come a time to solve the problem or repair the relationship. This is not the time. Stay present in the conversation and worry about fixing later.
5. REMEMBER WHAT WAS SAID
When we remember what our partner is saying, it communicates care and love which also helps build emotional intimacy. It's usually not helpful to re-hash old fights, but when you say something like "I remember from our conversation a few weeks ago that it really bothers you when I don't tell you I'm coming home late and I did it again today. I'm sorry and I'll do better to communicate with you when I'll be late".
Becoming a better listener takes practice. If this is an area that you're weak in, you're not going to become a better listener over night. It takes being intentional and practicing your listening skills and we typically have MANY opportunities each day to practice those skills in our marriage! You might not do it perfectly all the time, but let your spouse know this is something you want to be better at and work at it together.