When couples walk in my door, saying, “We can’t communicate,” one of the things I immediately wonder is whether anyone is truly listening.

So much of the time, instead of listening, you assume you know what the other one is about to say, or you can’t wait to give our opinion, or you already disagree and quickly interrupt with your version of the truth.

The following is a true story. It offers a vital lesson in how to actually listen and grow together in a way where both of you learn and deeply understand one another.

An exercise in listening…. really listening.

Jim and Rebecca were attending a group workshop, where they were learning a specific technique of listening. The exercise was designed carefully: one partner talked while the partner listened. The goal for the partner who was talking was to keep to one topic, and try to travel deeper into their feelings about it. The goal for the listening partner was to keep their own agenda (ego) out of the way, and try to learn something they didn’t know.

It’s much harder than it sounds, especially getting rid of your own agenda when you’re listening. Questions like, “What do you want me to do about that?” Or “How do you think that affects me and the kids?” are strictly not allowed.

Instead, think about the questions you asked when you were first dating — when you couldn’t wait to discover who this person you were falling in love with really was. How did he get the way he was? How did her mind work?

At the group workshop, each couple took a turn practicing the technique in front of the other couples, who would listen and then giving support afterwards.

Jim and Rebecca were last to take their turn. Jim said, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

“No, I can’t. I don’t think I can say what I’ve been feeling. You won’t understand.”

“I promise, you can. I have watched others. I get this.” The room settled in to listen.

Okay.” Rebecca took a long breath. “I often wish for your death.

The room became very still. A couple of intense seconds ticked by.

He answered. “How long have you felt that way?

They went on to discuss how utterly hopeless she felt about their marriage. She had tried everything. Her fantasies about his death didn’t mean she truly wanted him to die, but that she was incredibly demoralized and desperate.

He got it.

The next day, the couple came into the room, laughing. When asked what was the joke, Rebecca said, “We were walking on the sidewalk and Jim was on the street side. A huge tractor-trailor came rolling past. He turned to me, with a wry smile on his face. ‘Now’s your chance.’

Jim truly listened to Rebecca, and there were high hopes for the future of their marriage.

What makes you stop listening… and what you can do about it…

Why do we stop listening? There are many reasons, but here are a few.

1) It’s easy to assume you know what your partner is going to say.

After all, you’ve been together for years, and we can get repetitive with one another. But maybe, just maybe, you don’t know what they’re thinking.

We all know that saying about making assumptions, “To assume is to make an ass out of u and me.”

You can realize instead that you spend eight to twelve hours away from this person every day. They’re having experiences that you’re not aware of at all. Perhaps it would be interesting to stay curious about the life of your partner; they might surprise you.

2) You’re thinking about what you’re going to say, and can barely wait for them to stop talking.

As your partner is talking to you, you’re busy formulating a response, a defense, something that will prove them wrong. You can’t wait to make your point, especially if you feel criticized. 

Rather than thinking of what you’re going to say when it’s “your turn,” try to stay in the moment and actually listen to what they’re communicating to you. Then you have the ability to respond more spontaneously, and the conversation might actually lead somewhere fresh.

3) You’re responding to their “tone,” and stop listening to their words.

As soon as she starts nagging, I shut her out.”

“I hear that condescending tone in his voice, and I just get mad. Who is he to talk to me that way?”

You can grow very sensitive to how your partner is talking to you, and that makes it easy to have an emotional reaction. You get mad, or withdraw. The actual message of what they’re trying to convey to you is is lost. Remember that means you’re responding emotionally because you don’t like the emotions they are expressing; it can be a cycle that feeds on itself.

You can say to your partner, “I want to listen and talk to you, but when you say it in the way you are, I tune out.” Hopefully, they will respond by changing their tone. The important message to them is, “I want to listen.”

4) You’re distracted by something else.

“I told you that.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did. You were sitting, looking at the TV and doing something on your phone, but you answered me.”

Well, I don’t remember that at all.”

If you’re really listening to someone, you’re looking at them in the eyes, or jotting down what they’re saying. It’s an active activity. We get in the habit of trying to talk to each other, while distracted by a hundred other things.

Similarly, wait until your partner is through doing something before talking to them about something you want them to remember or understand completely.

Harry Nilsson sang in Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s talkin’ at me. I don’t hear a word they’re saying. Only the echoes of my mind.” Not great for good communication.

5) You can misread your partner’s motive, or intent.

You can believe that your partner has an ulterior motive behind what they’re saying. Often, this occurs due to earlier conflict. You still think your partner is making a point, or getting a punch in. Let’s say you had a fight about who is doing the brunt of the work around the house. Feelings were aired on both sides, but the subject is still sensitive.

Then later he says, “Do you want me to pick up the kids today?

She explodes, “Just because I was saying I’m tired, doesn’t mean I need you to do that!”

He has moved on from the earlier conversation, but she hasn’t. She misreads his motivation or intent. You can have “do-overs” for these kinds of conversations. Realize and admit that you’re assuming negative intent. Then ask for another chance at talking.

Good communication is not impossible.

It takes attention, and practice.


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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