Couples who learn to actively, mindfully listen to one another have a better chance of having a deep, intimate relationship. It makes sense: When you listen well enough to understand your partner’s point of view, you understand him or her better, and the bond between you strengthens.
So how do you become a masterful listener?
First, rid yourself of all desire to do anything but hear what your partner is saying. This is not about you, it’s about your partner. Do not formulate a response while your partner is speaking. Do not judge what your partner is saying. Do not do anything but open yourself to consciously hear and understand.
Once you’ve prepared yourself to receive your partner’s words with thoughtfulness, here are things you can do to heighten your power as a great listener.
- Repeat back what you hear. If your partner has spent some effort telling you how he or she feels, it’s a good idea to validate what they’ve said, and ensure that you got it right. It’s very easy, especially when your partner’s upset, to receive a mix of messages and feelings. When your partner’s finished speaking, try to sort out what he or she has said and meant. Then say something like, “I hear you saying you feel angry because (fill in the blank), is that right?” Don’t offer a solution at this point. Just be there for your partner. If it applies, you might commiserate. For example, you might say, “I understand that you’re upset with my brother. He gets me upset too sometimes.”
- Do not try to change how your partner feels. People feel how they feel. You may not like how your partner feels, especially if it’s anger toward you. But remember, this is not about how you feel. Put your feelings on the shelf for a bit. Do not apologize, do not defend yourself, do not get angry, do not change the subject, do not try to cheer up your partner. Do not do anything until you fully understand the nature of your partner’s anger. You could say, “I understand you are angry with me, and I want to know more about why. Tell me how you’re feeling.”
- Accept sadness as a part of life. There are times when it’s appropriate to just cry and be sad for a while. If that’s how your partner feels, do not try to jolly him or her out of it, but respect the sadness. Give it its due and let it be. Try to understand the source of the sadness and encourage your partner to talk about it. It’s good to know why your partner is sad, and if you can avoid that sadness in the future, great. But if you can’t, remember we do not have to be 100 percent happy all the time. Sometimes we need to be sad. If your partner’s sadness becomes overwhelming and inappropriate, then perhaps counseling is in order.
- Recognize your partner’s anger as an opportunity. Even if your partner is angry at you, or someone in your family, look upon it as an opportunity to get closer to him or her by understanding the anger. What is the source of the anger? Usually, it has to do with a goal your partner has that has been blocked for some reason. If you’re responsible for blocking it, find out the root cause. Ask questions like, “What are your concerns?” “What can I do to alleviate your anger?” “How can I help you achieve your goal?”
- Take your partner’s fear seriously. If your partner is fearful and feels unsafe, you need to know what’s making her or him feel that way. Even if you think the fear is unfounded, it’s important to listen to your partner’s gut feeling, which is a legitimate feeling even if the reason for the fear is false. The key is to take the fear seriously by getting to the bottom of why he or she feels fear. Again, you can ask, “What are your concerns?” “Why do you feel unsafe?” “What can I do to help you feel safe?” Listen to your partner’s answers before you try to reassure him or her. Premature reassurance can seem like you are making light of a very real feeling.
Once you get the hang of being completely present and focused on your partner’s words and meaning, you can express your empathy as your partner speaks. Tell your partner you know how he or she feels if you do. Validate your partner’s feelings by saying you agree or are supportive. Summarize the feeling in your own words, and voice your empathy. It’s a real opportunity for you to gain insight into your partner’s feelings and grow closer through your understanding.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: https://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact/.