Any time an engaged couple asks me what they could proactively stand to work on, as intently as possible, learning how to really listen to each other always comes up in the top five. I can't tell you how many miscommunications, knock-out-drag-outs and shoot, even a lack of emotional connecting can be avoided if two people simply purposed in their mind to get still, put a pause on potential distractions and really just listen to one another.
That's what we're going to touch on today. Whether you've been seeing someone for two months or 10 years, you can always improve the quality of your dynamic by making sure to listen to your partner as you encourage him to do the same.
Wait Until You Are Ready to Actually Listen
A number one cause of breakdowns in marriages is poor communication. And what's one of the biggest causes of poor communication? People who don't know how to listen. Listening is a heck of a lot more than just hearing someone. One definition of listen is "to pay attention". Another that I also really like is "to wait attentively for a sound".
If you're not prepared to give your partner your undivided attention and be patient as they are trying to articulate and express their thoughts, then you're not ready to fully listen to what they have to say.
Keeping these points in mind, one of the best ways to start listening better to your partner is to wait until you know when you will actually…listen to them. This is especially the case if they want to have a serious conversation with you.
And what if, for whatever the reason, you aren't exactly ready to listen? There is no need to be short, patronizing or rude. Simply think of when you know you can be more attentive; when you will be willing to do your best to understand what needs to be conveyed. A time when there are not as many distractions, you are not mentally preoccupied with lots of other things, and your energy is in a place that won't put them on the defensive (more on that in a moment). Try and figure out a time within 48 hours of their request. Trust me, the more open you are to listening (as they are to you), the much smoother your conversations will be able to go.
Practice the Golden Rule
Sometimes, when I'm in counseling sessions, I'll look at one of the spouses and be like, "Wow. No wonder your partner is almost out of the door." Their body language is foul. They are constantly talking over me and their spouse. All they really care about is how they feel about a certain person, place, thing or idea. Compromising is never really on the table. Coming to a place of peace, for both parties, is something they couldn't care less about. Oh, but when it's time for their needs to be addressed, all of what I just said goes completely out of the window. Suddenly, their spouse is to be totally different than they just were to them. You know what this kind of person is called, right? Yep. A HYPOCRITE. Pretty much all of us are familiar with the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When it comes to really and truly listening to your partner, is this a courtesy that you honestly can say that you extend to him? (Be honest now.)
Count to 5 (or 10) Before Responding
Oftentimes, whenever people read a tip like this one, they think it only applies to when they are pissed off or irritated. While it is a good idea to count to five or 10 when you feel that way (although what's actually better is to refer back to the first tip that I mentioned), I think that internally counting should be a practice in all conversations. I'm sure you've heard before that lots of people are more focused on getting out what they want to say next instead of hearing what someone is already saying. Well, this is definitely the cause of why a lot of couples don't feel heard—and therefore, respected—in their relationship.
The reality is, if all you care about is what you want and need to say, all this means is you simply want to get off a monologue with your partner serving as your audience. Not only is that counterproductive in communication but, real talk, it's pretty arrogant and insensitive too. Whether you feel triggered, whether you totally disagree with them, or even if it's that you simply have lots to say in response to what is being said, still take a moment to count, process and think about what the appropriate response should be.
Good communication is not a race to the finish. It's a tool that helps both people feel like some resolve has been obtained.
Get Off of the Defensive
Whew. I don't know if anything is more exhausting than someone who is defensive all of the time. I actually had to end a coaching relationship with a married couple because the wife was this kind of person. What's interesting about these types of folks is, they typically have so many walls up, that when you call them out on their stuff, they're so busy trying to defend themselves that they can't even see where you are coming from. So, what are some signs that point to how a defensive individual acts?
- They take everything personally
- They have no idea how to see the humor in things or how to laugh at themselves
- If it's not their way, it's wrong
- They're not happy unless they get the last word
- No matter how minor a topic of conversation might be, they want to "prove" their side of it
- They feel like their partner should apologize, even when they really didn't do anything wrong
- They can hold grudges for days
Didn't you get exhausted, just by reading this? That's because defensive people are UTTERLY EXHAUSTING. So much in fact that, if the defensive person doesn't pull back some, their partner may stop opening up and/or fully listening to them altogether. And when a relationship gets to this point and place, there's nowhere good that it can actually go. At least, not until the defensiveness and some real healing (from the wounds that come from dealing with a defensive individual) transpires. Defensive folks don't listen and oftentimes aren't really heard either. Do your very best to not be this kind of person.
Get Clarity in Question Form
If you truly want a discussion (especially if you sense that it is headed towards a disagreement) to be effective, something that I've found to be super-effective, both on the giving and receiving end, is presenting things in question form. Not only can it help both people to not get defensive but, when you ask a question, it mentally and emotionally positions you to wait for an answer. Plus, it oftentimes makes the person you're directing your question to feel more comfortable opening up and providing even more information about where they're coming from and how they're feeling.
Bottom line, a surefire sign of a good listener is someone who tries to gain as much clarity as possible, so that the conversation ends up being productive rather than 1) a waste of time or 2) something that made matters worse rather than better. If you're not used to communicating with questions, try it. So long as the approach is sincere and non-condescending (which is another Ted Talk for another time), it can make for a much smoother exchange between you and your partner.
Make Finding Resolution More Important than Being Right
A wise person once said, "Immature people always want to win an argument, even at the cost of the relationship." (Check out "How To Deal With A Partner Who's NEVER Wrong") In striving to listen to your partner better, it's important to always—and I do mean, always—ask yourself if you care more about being right or respecting them by validating their feelings and views. Another question to ponder is, when there is conflict, is working together to find a resolution your top priority?
I'm pretty sure you've heard the quote by author Stephen Covey that says, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood", but did you know that is only a part of it? The ending is, "Seeking real understanding affirms the other person and what they have to say." Understanding someone is about comprehending what they are saying and, (what I really like) grasping why their thoughts are so significant to them. If you're someone who makes understanding a part of listening, I promise you that, not only will your partner feel respected (which is huge), they will want to share more with you. And, at the end of the day, that is what emotional safety and intimacy are truly all about.
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