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How You And Your Partner Can Listen To Each Other Better

A sign of a truly thriving relationship is when two people actually LISTEN to each other.

Love & Relationships

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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