27 Sep Want Better Communication In Your Relationship? Listen Up.

Imagine this scene. Jess and Todd are sitting on a beach watching the ocean and the sky, enjoying a moment of relaxation together.

Todd: “Can we have a chat? There’s some stuff I want to run past you”.

Jess: “Sure! I’d love to hear what you have to say!”

Todd: “Well, I’d like to talk to you about how, to me, the sky is green”.

Jess: “No it’s not. That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows the sky is blue!”

Todd: “OK. Whatever. Let’s not talk about the sky anymore”.

Game over. An opportunity for relational intimacy lost. Jess might be right: that’s not the point.

The point is that Todd wanted to talk. But what he said didn’t “fit” with Jess’s point of view. So she shut him down.

As a marriage and relationship therapist, I’m working with couples everyday who are trying to communicate about personal and relational stuff that’s far more important than the colour of the sky. So you can imagine how damaging it can be to their relationship when the above example is so often how it plays out.

I would have loved this scene to unfold very differently, something more like this:

Todd: “Can we have a chat? There’s some stuff I want to run past you”.

Jess: “Sure! I’d love to hear what you have to say!”

Todd: “Well, I’d like to talk to you about how, to me, the sky is green”.

Jess: “Whoa! I’m pretty surprised to hear you say that, because they way I see it, the sky is definitely blue! But I’m curious about where you’re coming from! Tell me more!”

Todd: “OK! …” (further conversation ensues)…

Like many marriage and relationship therapists, I’m constantly promoting the benefits of great communication for couples who genuinely want relationships that really thrive.

And also like many marriage and relationship therapists, I’m constantly witnessing partners shut each other down, whilst in the very next breath claiming that they want to communicate more!

If this is your relationship, I’d bet there’s times that one or both of you are feeling misunderstood, unvalued, frustrated, angry, lonely, resentful, and hopeless about a relationship where you just “don’t communicate well”.

What too often happens for couples facing this dilemma is they learn to stop talking about anything that won’t fit their partner’s world-view. Unfortunately what this means is they stop talking about stuff that’s real for them. And when this happens, intimacy and connection can’t survive.

There is a better way.

Here’s what it takes to create a relationship culture where healthy listening guarantees you’ll not only communicate well, but create a relationship that grows and thrives:

1. Remove distractions

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from partners who aren’t feeling heard is that mobile phones are interrupting what precious little time they actually have to communicate together. Your phone’s “flight mode” is there for a reason: use it! If you must attend to a distraction, don’t keep pretending to listen! Just tell your partner that you’re too distracted, and reschedule your discussion for another time.

2. Suspend judgment

Care a lot less about being right, and a lot more about hearing more. It really doesn’t matter if what your partner is saying doesn’t seem true for you. Keep reminding yourself that factual “objective” reality and individual “subjective” reality are two completely different things. Your partner is entitled to his or her own subjective reality. Listening without judgement is not the same as agreeing with their particular point of view.

3. Be curious

You can’t be curious if you want to be right or to control an outcome. Being curious means that you ask open questions that encourage your partner to think more deeply and to disclose more. This is why a curious partner can be such a helpful asset when we’re confused: they, ask questions and make comments that “open doors” in our head rather than shut them down, which in turn, nudges us towards clarity.

4. Be present

Ever catch yourself mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say next, even while your partner is still speaking? If so, you’re going to need to get better at staying present. It takes absolute focus to listen at your best, especially when what you’re hearing is triggering you in some way. If you’re worried that you’ll forget something that you might want to say later, jot it down.

5. Mirror back what you’ve heard

Even when I ask partners to listen very carefully to what the other is saying, they often find it extremely difficult to accurately mirror back what they’ve heard. Instead, they’ll offer a paraphrased version that omits chunks of data, puts an incorrect interpretation on the data, or introduces completely new data that wasn’t said, nor intended. Slow down. Mirror back what you’re hearing, using your partner’s exact words. Ask for help if you forget something, and clarification if you hear something that you don’t understand.

6. Trust that it’s OK to agree to disagree

Being great listeners doesn’t mean agreeing all the time, and agreeing is absolutely not necessary for a relationship that thrives. What it does mean however, is that you’re both honest, and respectful of your opposing views.

Our Jess might need to tell Todd “OK so thanks for explaining that more for me. I’m still not seeing it from your point of view, but I’m happy to listen again another time if there’s more you’d like to talk through”.

On the other hand our Todd might say “Thanks Jess. I can see that what I’ve said hasn’t made a lot of sense to you, but I’ve tried my best to explain it anyway. Thanks for hearing me out”.

One final question, and the answer brings both good and bad news: Once partners become really great listeners, does this mean that all their marriage and relationship problems can be resolved?

The bad news, in short, is “no”. Sometimes it takes more than great listening to resolve relationship distress. Reach out and get help when you need it. The good news however, is that once you become skilled listeners, the likelihood resolving your relationship problems most definitely improves. Couples prove this to me everyday.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Pamela has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive for over 25 years. Contact Pamela here.