By Debby Gullery
Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.
– David Augsberger
Listening well, with generosity, is a learned skill. None of us are born being great listeners. And since all couples have trouble getting through to each other sometimes, it makes sense for us to periodically evaluate and improve our listening skills.
Listening is usually associated with receiving—but it is actually something very substantial that we can give to our spouses. Of course we may have to work at it and practice a little, but if we do it well, with intention and sincerity, listening carefully can bring us closer to our spouses.
Listening well is a whole-body experience. In other words, we know someone is really listening to us because they convey it through their body language, their listening responses, and their eye contact. It also really helps if we’re in the same room and turn off the electronics—I know this is hard!—and if we try not to interrupt! (even though we really, really want to!).
Another shift happens when we change our communication goals from aiming for agreement, to aiming for appreciation and understanding. This goal adjustment changes the emotional climate between us, and allows for honesty and vulnerability to emerge. When we listen for appreciation and understanding, we don’t need to provide solutions and we won’t need to fix anything or anyone. Instead, we can put our focus on building trust, giving value, and expressing our love by simply listening generously. This effort will help our partners feel affirmed and really heard, and being heard feels like love.
Paraphrasing and asking questions are two easy techniques that can also help us to convey our interest in our partners and what they have to say. By asking for clarification, others know when we are really listening. We might use the phrases, “So what you’re saying is…”, or “Let me see if I have this right…”, and sometimes just ask them, “Is that what you mean?” or “Is there anything more you want to add?” By the way, there’s always more!
Another helpful technique is to name the feeling you think your partner is trying to convey. You can say, “It seems to me that you’re feeling really angry (name the feeling)”. If you’re right, your partner will feel understood, and if you’re not, they will clarify how they feel for you. It’s a win/win situation.
If we listen to our spouses’ responses carefully, we can learn a great deal about how they are feeling. For example, if we hear them begin a sentence with “Yeah but…”, this is usually a good indicator that they are beginning to feel defensive. When we are feeling defensive, we are not able to listen effectively. Instead, we get consumed with defending ourselves and our perspective, and that blocks us from hearing anything the other person has to say.
It also means that we should take a break from our conversation and resume it only when we have both calmed down and the defensiveness has died. It’s just isn’t a good idea to continue talking when one or both spouses is getting defensive!
Listening for appreciation and understanding requires effort, practice and internal strength. But generous listening is one of the most important gifts we can give our partners to help them feel affirmed, heard and loved by us!
Take the following quiz and learn about where you might need to improve your listening ability.
Listening Skills Quiz
1. Would my close friends say that I am a good listener?
2. When people are angry with me, am I able to listen to their side without getting upset?
3. Am I generally able to reflect back and validate another person’s feelings with empathy?
4. Am I aware of my primary defensive mechanisms that emerge when I am under stress? (such as placating, blaming, problem-solving prematurely, or becoming distracted.)
5. Am I aware of how the family in which I was raised has influenced my present listening style?
6. Do I ask for clarification when I am not clear about what another person is saying, rather than making assumptions?
7. Do I interrupt or listen for openings to get my point across when someone else is speaking?
Now take the quiz again and substitute the words “my spouse” for “people” or “person.” For example: 1. Would my spouse say that I am a good listener? Pay attention to the difference in your answers. Many people discover that it’s harder to be a generous listener with their spouses than with others!
I want to appreciate where you are coming from and understand why you think and feel the way you do, so I will practice listening with generosity.
This article is adapted from Debby’s book, Small Steps to Bigger Love, which is available through HSA Publications and on Amazon. It includes a study guide for small group use. Debby is also available for individual and couple coaching and to teach workshops and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at debbygullery.com.