When a new couple comes into my office for therapy and I ask them what kind of help they are looking for, almost every single couple says one thing: "We need to learn how to communicate better". Why is it that so many couples have trouble "communicating"? Why is it that the smallest disagreement will often turn into an escalated fight where one or both partners feels hurt, gets angry, or shuts down?
What I have come to realize in my many years of therapy with couples, is that we don't need to learn how to communicate more effectively. We need to learn how to listen better. I truly believe that effective communication is 10% speaking and 90% listening.
Why is it so hard for us to listen to the one who we have committed our life to, the one who we might love the most in this world? Because at some point in our relationship (usually within the first few years), we go from wanting to know every little detail about our partner and listening intently to all of their deepest thoughts and feelings, to listening more to the defensive rebuttals in our own head than caring about what our partner is saying.
Here Are Three Tips to Becoming a Better Listener
1. Slow Down
If you are starting to get into it with your partner, notice what is happening in your body. Were you specifically triggered by something he/she said? Is your heart racing? Are you starting to raise your voice? Any sort of physiological response (fight or flight) should be paid attention to. Once you tune in, start taking deep breaths and remind yourself that you don't have to get all of your thoughts out at one time. Remind yourself that you are probably not in actual danger* (even thought it might feel like it) and it's best to stay present and try to calm your body down. If you can't reduce your heightened response, it is ok to ask for a break from the conversation. The appropriate way to do this is to say "I'm triggered by what is going on here and I need to take a break to calm down before I say something I don't mean. Let's take a break for 15 minutes and then try again." Try to avoid just walking away without saying what is going on or committing to a time to re-engage. This can escalate the fight further and may cause your partner to just follow you around until he/she gets a response they are looking for.
One tip that I give is to have whoever is doing the talking, hold a pillow or a squishy ball to indicate that they are the one speaking. The other person does not get to talk if they don't have the item. Then the item gets handed to the other person and that person can now respond. This prevents talking over each other and slowing down the conversation instead of escalating.
*If you ARE in a dangerous or abusive relationship, none of these techniques will help improve communication in your relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, you need to call your local crisis line or find a domestic violence organization near you that can help.
2. Don't take everything personally
This is probably the hardest advice to take, because the things our partner says often FEELS personal. Take this example: On his way out the door to work your husband asks you take the trash out to the curb for him because he's running late and didn't have time to do it this morning. What he doesn't know is that earlier that morning, you tweaked your back as you were getting out of the shower and have been in pain all morning. One might have two different responses to this situation. Someone who takes this personally might think about their husband "You are so insensitive and selfish! How dare you ask me to do something that is YOUR job, especially when I am in pain and can barely move? Why do I have to do EVERYTHING around here?" Someone else who is able to see outside of themselves might respond like this: "Oh man it's too bad we didn't have time to connect this morning so I could tell him about my back. I'm sure he'd feel bad about asking me to do something that he knew caused me pain. I'll call him on the way to work and let him know I couldn't get the trash out by myself". This is called having a same-team mindset.
These are two very different internal responses. This is a listening skill because when we take things in that our spouse is saying, we have several options of how we respond. Listening in a way that takes things personally is only going to lead to feelings of contempt about our partner which increases the chance of divorce. On the other hand, if we can assume positive intent on the part of our partner, we are less likely to take it as a personal attack.
3. Stay Curious
One of the things that I see happen A LOT in my office with couples is that there is a lot of assuming going on. And we all know what happens when we assume, right? (If you don't know, we make an "ass" out of "u" and "me"). Assuming has gotten me into trouble many times in both my personal and professional life. When we assume, we believe that we know exactly what the other person is thinking or what their intentions are.
So, the opposite of assuming, is staying curious. Maybe, start assuming that you DON'T know what the other person's intentions are. Stay curious and ask questions about where the other person is coming from. Ask them what led them to a certain conclusion they may have made. Let them know that what they are saying feels like a personal attack, but that you want to assume positive intent and would like to give them a chance to explain.
Here are some great questions to ask as you listen:
1. What are you feeling?
2. How did this all evolve?
3. What's your major restriction or complaint here?
4. What meaning does this have for you to bring this up now?
5. How did this all begin, what was the very start?
6. What, if anything, makes you angry in this situation?
7. Do you think this has affected our relationship? If so, how?
8. Does this remind you of anything else in your personal history?
9. What is your biggest "turn off" about this?
10. What's your major reaction or complaint here?
List adapted from Dr. John M. Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman's "Questions You Can Ask As You Listen"
Limiting the fighting and disagreements with our spouse is not the point of healthier communication. Yes, the way we say things can escalate conflict. But I truly believe that the direction that any conversation goes is navigated by how well each of us listens during our arguments. This week, pay attention to how well you are listening to your partner. What areas do you need to work on?
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