What does it mean to really listen when your spouse or partner is talking?
I will tell you right now the majority of you are doing one or all of the following when you and your spouse are in a discussion that involves anything other than the weather or schedules:
- Thinking about unrelated topics
- Coming up with your defensive position
- Having an inner argument about what to say or not
- Searching desperately for the best advice to give
- Selectively listening to hear what you want
- Thinking about how unbelievably wrong they are
- Thinking about how you are going to convince them out of it
- Thinking about how sorry you feel for yourself
- (Fill in this blank with your own)
I think you might really be amazed at how distracted you are by your own agenda in the conversation. What is this about?
I think our inner baby is coming out. Really, we want things done and thought about our way because our way is the right way. Plus (the inner baby says) we are married and therefore we must think the same and be the same and if you stray from that my world becomes uncertain and scary. Adult arguments are just grown up tantrums.
We become so sensitive to each other that having differences of opinions can be threatening. Therefore when having a discussion, we become desperate to have the person agree with the way we see things and are so distracted by plotting our next move to herd them into our corner we are not even listening. When both people are doing this simultaneously, the back and forth lobs are faster and more furious than even Serena and Venus could keep up with.
I am inclined to address those that are saying, “That’s not me…I’m never like that.” Liar!! I would venture to guess that about 90% of people reading this operate under the automatic assumption that everyone sees the world as they see the world and makes sense of it in the way they do. It takes a pretty evolved human being to understand that our family histories and brains are what drives us to see the world as we do and no two family histories or brains are alike. Therefore, two people seeing and understanding one issue the exact same way is almost impossible, yet we spend much of our time trying to persuade, convince or coerce those we are having a discussion with to agree with us. How can we be listening when this is the agenda? As adults, we need to understand that our perspective is just that. There are infinite possibilities and perspectives…ah inspiring (And scary and overwhelming for the inner baby).
What can we do to be more present in the conversations that we have with our spouse?
1) Increase your awareness of the self chatter that goes on in your head. Review the list above and just notice how often these thoughts pop up while in a conversation. Do it more than once. Do this multiple times and take notes.
2) Set an intention to listen without interrupting and more importantly, to hear what is being spoken. Be genuinely interested in the way your spouse thinks about stuff. You love this person. Isn’t it fascinating to hear how their brain makes sense of their world, what they choose to communicate and how they choose to string the words together to make sentences? So uniquely them. FASCINATING! (That last touch was to emphasize the fake it till you make it mentality…keep working at it). Sometimes when I torture my clients with mirroring or repeating back what they heard their spouse say, they are forced into the exercise of really listening. Try this sometime when the cheese ball, psychology 101 mood hits you. Seriously, it’s a good exercise.
3) Get out of the right versus wrong mentality. Bottom line is that your spouse is not wrong. I don’t even have to know what the content is to tell you point blank, they are not wrong. Nor are you. I go back to the perspective thing. What they are saying makes sense to them given the way they understand the world and their place in it. Really, when you think about it, who are you to feel that you have to, or should change that? I have worked with plenty of people over the years who have successfully “changed” their partner into thinking the way they do and it has always come back to bite them in the ass. All of the sudden, they become responsible for this person in a way they hadn’t had to be before. Talk about scary…Let me be clear that we all influence each other and there is most certainly healthy influence. But to view your spouses point of view as wrong is downright insulting.
4) Know the point of communication. Your job in an argument is not to have a winner or a looser. It is to see how well you can define yourself and your beliefs clearly to those around you and to negotiate coming to a mutual agreement you can both live with. That may be closer to your thinking on the matter or vise versa but if you go into a discussion with the intent to have the whole thing exactly as you want, you may be in for it.
5) Listen and bite your tongue. What if you allowed your spouse to have the floor without ANY rebuttal from you? What if you just listened and at the end said, ” I’ve heard you and I’m going to take a few hours to think about what you have said.” I guarantee you you will be interrupting a pattern and if your spouse doesn’t drop dead from shock, he or she might return the floor to you (no guarantees and it’s not about that…it just might increase the chance:) Respect your spouse enough to let them know you have heard them and are interested in their perspective by really thinking about what they are saying.
Off you go baby! Grow up, listen hard, and enjoy each others differences and unique offerings set before you.
Glennon Gordon, LICSW
4545 42nd Street, NW Suite 201
Washington, DC 20016
Available for private consultation