Often times in contemporary society we listen to respond rather than to understand. We listen until we have a rebuttal, or we listen until we have a thought we want to share. Then, we either interrupt or get distracted by our own thoughts and struggle to listen effectively. We can become so focused on wanting to express our own perspective that we lose sight of trying to understand someone else’s perspective. In close relationships, this can lead to hurt feelings, relationship problems, distancing, or even divorce.
Ineffective patterns of communication can be long-standing. On average couples come to therapy after they have been engaging in ineffective patterns of communication for a long time and experiencing distress for about six years. Many people who come to therapy indicate that they just want to feel heard in their relationships. But too often we struggle to communicate to the others that we “hear” them and understand their perspective.
Even if the concept of understanding another’s perspective is clear, many of us don’t know what skills to use to get there and have not observed or experienced validating someone else’s perspective in action. Then, even if we understand another’s perspective, it can be tricky to communicate our understanding in a way that they feel heard. Both you and the other person can wind up feeling alone in the situation.
Therapy can help, even if your relationship isn't on the rocks. Participating in counseling or therapy can help introduce you to more effective communication skills or help sift through and possibly heal years of damage caused by ineffective communication skills.
The three strategies I’ll outline in this blog series can lead to more effective listening within your relationships, improve closeness and understanding, and practicing these skills in therapy might even help save your relationship or marriage.
Before I share these three effective listening strategies in parts 2, 3 & 4 of this blog series, it is important to understand a couple of points.
Overarching goals of listening in close relationships
First, in close relationships, a primary goal of listening is to understand the other person’s perspective regardless of your perspective or what you want their perspective to be. Listening is about their perspective, so it is important to avoid telling them how they feel or how they should feel. You want to be able to explain to them, using your own words, your understanding of how they are feeling or seeing things.
A second important point is to allow the other person their feelings without trying to change, get rid of, or minimize those feelings. When we care about someone, we don’t want them to hurt. However, wanting someone to not hurt has zero bearing on whether they will hurt or not (or feel frustrated, sad, or whatever). Pain is part of the human experience and listening with the goal of understanding can help them not feel so alone in their pain. Ironically, feeling heard and understood often helps someone move through their pain more quickly or easily. Through truly understanding and accepting how someone else feels we might be able to move forward in the relationship, feel closer to each other, and potentially transition to possible solutions or emotional healing.
Consider the following story:
I am very thankful that when I told my mom I was going to ask my wife to marry me, she gave me the ring that my father had given her (they had since divorced). The diamond was beautiful, and I had a new ring and setting made for the diamond, which created a very nice engagement ring. When it came to our wedding bands, we chose very modest wedding bands due to limited financial resources. Over the years, my wife has periodically stated that she wished the wedding band matched the engagement ring more closely or that “maybe it’s time to update the wedding band.”
I wanted to surprise her with an “updated” wedding band, although I am really bad at surprising her (she is quite observant and I am a terrible liar), so when she asked me to take her white gold wedding band and engagement ring to be cleaned, I knew I had an opportunity. Not only would she not be wondering where her rings were, I would also know the precise size for an “updated” wedding band.
As I told the jeweler what I was hoping for, we looked at examples and discussed pricing. I had a strict budget in mind, and we explored various options to get the cost within my budget. We were close, but couldn’t figure out how to get within my budget until he said, “What about her old wedding band, she won’t be wearing that one anymore, right? I can buy it from you to melt down for the gold and here would be the final cost for the new ring.”
Eureka! We were there! I signed the work order, and they began working on an “updated” engagement ring for my awesome wife.
When the new rings were finally ready, I excitedly returned her supposedly cleaned and shined up rings, as I watched for the surprise to be discovered. She opened the package with the rings and said, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” Whoo-hoo, surprise successfully executed.
Within a matter of seconds, she then said, “That’s not my wedding band. Where’s my wedding band.”
“Well, here’s what happened,” I said, and shared the details of my visit to the jeweler with her.
She took a deep breath and said, “I’m going to have to feel into that.”
Later, my wife told me that she felt sad. My first thought was, wtf…what was all the talk about an updated wedding band?
(At this point, the story could have taken several different turns. I invite you to imagine what might have happened next if you were the one in the story.)
I will share the end of the story in Part 4, where you might be able to pick out the three listening skills in action. These three listening skills turned a potentially negative, distancing, and hurtful encounter, into a positive outcome that helped us understand each other better.
Three listening skills you might learn in couples counseling and which I will discuss in the blog series include:
- be curious
Look for Part 2 of this blog to read about the first listening strategy (reflect) you might learn in therapy.
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.