Part V: Effective Listening
“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” ― Alan Greenspan
Effective listening deserves as much attention as effective speaking. If what we’re doing when the other person is speaking is simply formulating our rebuttal, looking for the parts we disagree with, or looking for things to justify our own feelings, then our response is not likely to be productive. Instead, listen to understand: to understand where your partner is, how they feel, and most importantly, how things look through their eyes.
The listener’s body language speaks volumes. As the speaker, we don’t express ourselves as freely when we’re looking at an angry face, a disbelieving face, a sarcastic face, or a bored, distracted face. Honor your partner by giving them your complete and open attention.
I like to start with the deceptively simple exercise of reflective listening, or mirroring what each other is saying. Whether we believe it or not, we are all poor listeners – we miss and distort an awful lot of what we hear. In the mirroring exercise, the speaker makes a statement, and the listener mirrors it back: “So you’re saying such and such – did I get that right?” The speaker should feel free to correct any mistakes in the listener’s mirroring.
This simple exercise actually builds up several “muscle groups,” so to speak. You are checking out communication – did I understand your message the way you intended it? That can stop quite a few arguments before they begin. And you are letting your partner know they were heard, which is often a welcome change of pace, compared to the feeling of talking to a wall or getting a response that feels dismissive. If someone is saying the same thing over and over, it’s because they have not felt heard the first time. When we can get ourselves to listen with respect and understanding, conflict management often takes care of itself.
One of the most important stretches I ask couples to make is to get curious about each others’ experience. I’ll joke that you may be doing 10 things that would annoy other people, but only one of them is an issue for your partner. Get curious about why that is, about what the behavior that you’re doing means to them. Does it echo experiences they had in their families growing up, or with past relationships? Understand what happens for your partner in those interactions – so that it is not a judgment on you, it’s information about how your partner is wired. That’s good information for you to have. And if you can develop true empathy for your partner’s experience, you will have a much firmer foundation for changing behavior than you would achieve through nagging or some negotiated settlement.
After mirroring what you have heard, make the stretch into empathy, with a statement such as, “And I would imagine that makes you feel…” So for example, the listener mirrors back, “You’re saying that you feel left out when I make plans with others without checking with you first. Did I get that? I would imagine that makes you feel unimportant.” Again, the speaker can feel free to correct the empathy statement. The listener is trying to understand not how this would make themselves feel, but what does it mean to their partner, who sees and experiences the world differently than they do. The goal of the exercise is not to become a tape recorder or a mind reader, but to develop a habit of checking out communication, clarifying it with each other, and developing a deeper understanding of your partner’s experience.
The more you can empathize with your partner’s experience, the more you can let go of your own defensive posture, and start to open up to a real connection.
I want to be clear about what empathy is and is not. The aim of empathy is to develop a gut-level understanding of how your partner feels, what the world looks like through their eyes and with their history of experiences, and what a given situation means to them. Your partner is built differently than you, and they interpret and respond to things differently than you do.
Empathizing with your partner does not mean you agree with them, or that they are right and you are wrong. And importantly, it doesn’t mean that you give up the right to assert yourself. Empathy is a two-way street, not a zero-sum game. You are as entitled to your feelings and perspective as your partner is to theirs.
And by the way, there are couples who balk at what they perceive as the artificiality of communication exercises like mirroring. To them I say: you’re right, this is not a natural way of speaking. It is an exercise, just like going to the gym and lifting pieces of metal is an artificial thing to do. But we do it to build muscles and reflexes and to grow – and that’s what we’re doing here. We’re using these exercises to build new ways of responding to our partner so we can build the best relationship we can have.