By Kara Hoppe, MA, LMFT
PACT Level 2 Therapist
Couples have a seemingly universal ask when they first reach out for therapy: each couple, no matter their specific struggle, is on the hunt for solid communication tools. This makes sense. Communication is a crucial part of how we connect with each other. We are wired for connection.
In my September blog post, I offered some deceptively simple tips on how partners can better communicate with each other by speaking clearly, kindly, and directly. I’m now back with part 2: effective tools to help us all tighten up our listening skills.
We long to be heard, seen, and understood by the people closest to our hearts, but finding connection through communication can get a bit tricky. Becoming a Jedi-level listener takes practice and intention. We need to learn to be present with our own discomfort.
Contrary to popular belief, being a good listener is a learned skill, not our natural tendency. We tend to “understand” what the speaker is saying by making sense of it in our own minds. It’s so cool how we’re always trying to relate to each other.
The trouble is that, when we’re sizing up what the speaker is saying in our own minds, we are not actually listening.
Some of the common pitfalls many listeners fall prey to:
Let’s take these pitfalls head on and consider a few alternative approaches instead. By practicing with better tools, we can begin to shift from being distracted or defensive to being attuned, stellar listeners. The good news is that we can deepen our connections to our partners and friends.
Thinking of a Response
A common pitfall – and I’m as guilty of doing this as anyone else. We are meaning-making creatures. Our minds are always looking to find meaning and create a narrative – fast.
This skill is helpful when we are problem-solving solo or making creative work, but it becomes problematic when we’re working with others. We need to understand other people’s perspectives. This is especially challenging in partnership, where listening and collaborating are critical.
If you catch yourself thinking of your own comeback (when you’re in a disagreement) or distracted by your own observations or thoughts (when you’re in a lively discussion), then recognition is a great first step. Just noticing you’re not listening is half the battle.
Owning it is the other half. Asking your partner, “Can you repeat that? I wasn’t listening very well,” or, “I was distracted. Let me settle my mind, and then will you say that again?”
Another helpful tip that Dr. Stan Tatkin, co-founder of PACT, teaches us is to situate ourselves face-to-face and eye-to-eye with our partner. There’s a neurobiological reason for this. Maintaining close proximity and eye contact helps both partners stay present.
Presence helps listening.
Saying We Understand When We Don’t
Also completely normal. It’s vulnerable and exposing to admit that we don’t grasp someone’s musings or can’t remember the experience they are retelling. We feel dumb when we don’t understand. We feel embarrassed that we’re blanking on what our partner is enthusiastically referencing.
There can be lots of pressure on folks to know something about everything, so it’s not intuitive to say, “I’ve never heard of that. Can you tell me more,” or admit, “I can’t remember that trip you’re talking about.” Many times, we fake our way through conversations, not really knowing what people are talking about. The results are not great. We don’t learn from each other or truly connect. It may feel safer to pretend to listen, but we lose the ability to connect and grow closer by holding on to that safety.
Next time your partner talks about something you’re in the dark about, experiment by asking for help to understand. Or, if they call back to a moment in your shared history that you can’t conjure in your mind, say that. Allow them to paint you a picture. See how it feels to ask for help and be helped. Notice the closeness it brings.
Shutting Down Difficult Conversations
Shutting conversation down is more destructive in partnerships. When partners stop engaging with each other during difficult conversations, intimacy and connection are severed at moments when partners need them most.
Ironically, this happens because one partner hears what the other partner is saying. The topic brings up an uncomfortable feeling in them, so they shut down the communication. Unfortunately, we are not taught how to be with own our pain. Often, when we experience pain, we run from it.
One partner brings up a request, disappointment, feedback, or hurt. The listener feels any range of emotion about it – sad, embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, frustrated. Then the listening partner either lashes out at the speaker or stonewalls the speaker. Both responses shut down all forms of connection. It’s an attempt to discharge pain, but the cost to the relationship is high.
Instead of discharging pain, the best way to combat this human reaction is to grow muscle so we can be with our own pain while connecting with our partner. The only way to do this is to practice. And, in long-term partnerships, we have many opportunities to practice connection during uncomfortable feelings!
What practice looks like:
Learning how to be good listeners to our partners is a lifelong practice; never mastered, we gain only continued skillfulness during each attempt. Being a good listener means slowing down, asking for help or clarification, and staying engaged during uncomfortable feelings. Remembering these key takeaways puts us right on that path for living this lifelong practice.