Listening is the Easy Thing
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
One of the things we focus on in our introductory course, Relating with Heart—Basic True Love, is enhancing your ability to listen and speak effectively. By speaking, I am referring to the ability to be persuasive, the capacity to speak clearly in a compelling manner so that other people care—and are inclined to listen and respond in a positive way.
Of course, we all obviously know how to speak and listen. However, when the stakes are high and it is important to have influence, to understand and be understood, is often when our speaking and listening skills prove insufficient to our goals and needs.
In fact, when the relational stakes are highest is when most of us falter
SKILLFULNESS AS A COMMUNICATOR HAS MANY APPLICATIONS
Mastering these two skills at a more competent level allows you to become an effective agent for positive change in your relationships. Cultivating these foundational tools will enable you to successfully turn differences and challenges into opportunities for learning and growth. While the Relating with Heart—Basic True Love retreat is focused on work with your spouse or partner, this skill set is applicable to all your relationships, including work. The CEO of a major Colorado corporation confided that these skills had proved invaluable in making him more effective in his professional role.
If you can master quality listening and speaking with your partner, it is likely that it will be much easier for you to be an effective communicator with other family members, close friends and business colleagues. You may be surprised at how much easier other people are to get along with once you have these distinctions.
LISTENING IS ACTUALLY THE EASY PART
We often tend to think of being a good listener as the more challenging task. In fact, after working with over a thousand couples, we have not found this to be the case. Given the right conditions, almost everyone is capable of being a great listener, when they put their mind to it.
These conditions include taking turns. One of the things that typically goes wrong when people get crosswise with each other—when couples fail to get to resolution about important matters, when differences escalate into fights—is that both people are trying to pack meaning and the search for influence into the same place at the same time. When both people are working hard to be heard and understood, the communication from the other person can be perceived as a distraction, noise, or even a threat. One of the key principles in all our work is taking turns.
In other words, as a listener, I am going to temporarily set my concerns aside—don’t worry, your issues are not going to disappear if you choose to set them aside for a moment—and offer my full attention to understanding my partner. Understanding them in a way that I have not up until this time, because I have been so busy feeling threatened and defending my own positions that I have not been able to fully listen.
This is listening that goes beyond being able to summarize their key points. This is listening that commits to actually getting over in your partner’s world and really comprehending what it is like to be them. In order to do this, it is critical to remember that listening does not mean you agree with them or what they are asking of you. In fact, you can fundamentally disagree and still listen in this deeper way. Remember: Listening to what they want and need does not mean you have to do it, it just means you care enough to understand them better.
All of this in the knowledge that you will get your turn to be heard with the
same level of attention and respect.
SETTING THE STAGE FOR A QUALITY CONNECTION
Of course, it is important to know that you will not be unfairly attacked or denigrated. It is difficult, inappropriate even, to listen deeply to insults. This is an important factor in effectively speaking in your own behalf and will be covered later in this article.
One of the biggest challenges we face in the current era is having enough time to actually relax, calm down from all the other pressures and pulls in our lives and simply be together. Our great lifestyles increasingly involve the maintenance of a lot of stuff, with many moving parts to be managed. As a result, we have less time to spend with our spouses, as well as our friends and families, than was the case with earlier generations.
Finally, to be a great listener it is important to have hope and faith that resolution can be reached. It may not necessarily be apparent at the beginning how this can happen. Also sometimes there really is an impasse that cannot be bridged. However, in our experience, the vast majority of seemingly insurmountable differences are perpetuated by a lack of skill and creativity in trying to resolve them. Mostly, even the really challenging stuff can be resolved with surprising ease when we approach each other in a productive manner.
None of this means that great listening is necessarily going to be always easy. Sometimes it can be excruciatingly difficult to hear our partner’s truth, especially when their point of view feels threatening or irreconcilable with my own needs.
At those moments it can be useful to ask yourself this: Am I better off knowing or not knowing what is important and true in your partner’s mind and heart? Trust me, you are going to feel the impact of their experience either way.
SELF-SOOTHING IS ESSENTIAL TO GROWN-UP RELATIONSHIPS
So being able to soothe yourself is of the essence if you want to be an effective listener. The measure of this is your ability to leave your partner with the sense that you understand them and care about their perspective—even if, especially if, you do not agree with them. This is a key learning for most of us—empathy does not equal agreement, it simply means that I genuinely care. This requires the capacity to tolerate difference without going into a stress response.
Often I am tempted to make it my partner’s responsibility to calm me down when I am upset. We sometimes act towards our partner as if we were helpless infants, incapable of soothing ourselves. Ever notice yourself acting at a level of immaturity with your partner that you would never consider revealing to anyone else? It is a perverse compliment to them that we trust our relationship enough to feel that we can get away with this kind of behavior.
The fact is, it is not my partner’s job to calm me down when I am upset or over-reacting. At least that is true if I want to have an adult relationship with them.
The tools you learn in Relating with Heart—Basic True Love are designed to expand your capacity to remain open and attentive even if you disagree with, or feel uncomfortable with, what is being said. When this discomfort occurs, it is common to try to shut out what your partner is saying by interrupting, talking over them, or refusing to listen.
As a result, it is inevitable that we fail to get the full picture (thoughts and emotions) of what is going on with them, especially when we are convinced we already know. Without this deeper understanding of our partner’s reality, it is virtually impossible to find sufficient empathy and connection to resolve challenging issues.
If you wish to listen respectfully to an important issue, it matters to repeat back what you are hearing. This slows things down and demonstrates that you are being attentive and engaged with what you are hearing. The words do not need to be exact, but the meaning should precisely reflect what was said.
If you feel agitated, it may be hard to remember very much. That is fine. Stop them as often as you need to accurately recreate what you are hearing.
And lastly, do not ask questions or otherwise interject your own thoughts. This may sound weird, but it is essential to being a great listener. Simply stay present.
Asking questions is actually a great way to dominate and derail your partner from what it is they are trying to communicate. If your question is important, you can always come back and ask for clarification later. It is easy to befuddle our partners with our own lines of inquiry, steal the momentum from them and fall back into the dysfunctional habit-pattern of trying to both communicate at the same time.
Also it is not uncommon for seemingly benign curiosity to be masking an underlying gripe. Why did you act like a jerk anyway? What were you thinking? These types of questions are often rhetorical or disingenuous.
COMMITTING TO LEARNING SOMETHING NEW
Most important is to fully commit to learning something new, even if, especially if, this is a topic you have heard a lot about already. Here is a helpful mantra in listening with the intent to learn: For the sake of our relationship, I need to know this.
Therefore the two critical prerequisites for skillful listening are:
The ability to self-soothe and retain the ability to listen
Commitment to learn something new from what is being said
SPEAKING IN YOUR OWN BEHALF
In contrast to listening, which nearly everyone can do well under supportive circumstances, most people are remarkably ineffective at speaking on their own behalf. If you watched videotape of most people asking those who matter the most, for the things that matter the most, you would be witnessing a cosmic joke, were it not so tragic. Many, if not most, requests for change—especially when it comes to important matters—unintentionally evoke resistance in the listener.
Why is this? One reason is that many of us were taught that it is impolite to be too explicit when asking for what we need or want for fear of coming across as demanding. While this can occur for either gender, in the past it was often girls who were given this toxic message to be unobtrusive and accommodating.
BEING CLEAR AND EXPLICIT IS A GIFT
In fact, letting your partner know exactly what you desire is a gift. Asking does not mean they have to do it. It just means they have accurate information about what is in your mind and heart, without having to guess.
One way a failure to be explicit often plays out is that you may decide, in advance of asking, that your partner is incapable of meeting your needs, so you may choose to reduce or dial-down your request to something you believe they are capable of doing.
Assuming your partner agrees to this diminished request, it is unlikely to be fully satisfying for you. Despite your partner’s best intentions to be responsive, the issue remains for you, since what you really want is still not happening.
This often triggers another round of potentially worse disappointment for both of you, as your partner can despair of being able to satisfy you, despite their best efforts to give you what you are asking for. A lack of candor inevitably sets your partner up for failure.
WHAT NOT TO ASK FOR IF YOU CARE ABOUT THE RESULT
Over the years we have consistently seen that important requests to intimate partners typically fall into one of three categories. We ask our partners for:
A better attitude
A character change
Here is what I can promise you if you ask your partner for a change that fits under one of these categories… It is not going to turn out! Odds are strong that what you are asking for is doomed to failure right from the start! Why?
THE REQUEST IMPLIES AN INSULT
First of all, the implication in all three cases is that there is something fundamentally off about or wrong with my partner before I even make my request. It is not very compelling to say yes to a request or need when doing so automatically implies that there is something wrong with me.
FUZZINESS AND AMBIGUITY ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS
Equally dysfunctional is that requests in these areas tend to be global and vague. Requests for more affection, or better awareness around my needs, or paying more attention to something just create more problems, since it is unlikely that any two people will have the same interpretation of what these things mean. My ideas around neatness or being considerate are unlikely to correspond exactly with my spouse.
So, once again, even if we reach agreement we have just set up another, potentially worse, fight in the future about what was actually agreed to. We are often aggrieved in our disappointment that our partner has not understood us better. We confuse feeling intensely about something with being perfectly clear when, in fact, often the opposite is true.
THE ONE THING YOU CAN DEFINITELY ASK FOR
So what can you ask for? In order to be effective, it is crucial to focus on changes in behavior, not changes in your partner’s attitude, awareness or character. Your partner may not be capable of changing their attitude, awareness or character.
Even if they are, who is able to accurately judge if that has happened? Being vague becomes a technique (intentional or not) for domination, a way to make your partner responsible for your unhappiness, when the real problem is that you have failed to define exactly what it is you need to be happy.
It is easy to get confused and believe that because I really want something important, my partner owes it to me to understand—without being able to recognize my own fuzzy incoherence and failure to take responsibility for articulating my needs in a coherent and compelling manner.
Unless requests are clear and unambiguous—defined in specific and measurable behaviors—it is unlikely that another person will be able to successfully meet them. We believe others should understand our requests because we are naming needs that are vital to our happiness, rather than grasping that we may defeating our own cause in the manner in which we express ourselves.
Specific and measurable means that it can be objectively determined, and agreed upon, whether something has, or has not, happened. Behavior is observable, it does not lie inside our minds or good intentions. Most of us need some practice to get clear on this distinction, especially when we are feeling upset.
The beauty of behavioral requests is that I can meet a specific and measurable request for change in behavior without having to own that something is wrong with me or have a particular attitude or understanding that may not be natural to me. Complying does not require excavations into my psyche, for me or my partner.
LEGACIES OF CHILDHOOD
We noted earlier how the youngest parts of ourselves tend to surface, even as adults, with those we depend on the most—especially our intimate partners. Children are often amazingly full of needs and preferences with little capacity (especially when they are little) for satisfying those needs and wants on their own.
Thus, as children, we all develop strategies for getting what we need from the people we believe have the power to grant our wishes, as well as complexes around the times we are thwarted.
These strategies and complexes are deeply rooted in our psyches. We explore this in depth in Relating with Heart—Passion and Purpose, using the Enneagram, which sheds amazing light on our reflexive and self-sabotaging behaviors. As adults, these tend to come up especially with those we feel most dependent on for the fulfillment of our needs.
Thus our sense of dependency on our partners can work against being able to appropriately ask for what we need. It can feel safer or more comfortable to have lowered expectations than to get our hopes up, experience vulnerable feelings of dependency again, risking another disappointment.
CAN’T WIN FOR LOSING
Therefore, we have a tendency to ask for what we want as if we already knew we were not going to get it. So, we ask with a tone of anger or hostility, alienation or resignation, or whatever else we preemptively do in the face of disappointment. This is particularly tragic since this pattern tends to come up around the things that really matter.
Given this combination of a lack of clarity about what is really being asked, coupled with resignation or frustration, together with speaking in a way that is challenging to hear—it is no wonder that we feel thwarted by how others (especially those closest to us) respond to our needs.
To be clear, the best communication cannot guarantee you will get what you want. However, what is highly likely is that you stand little chance of getting your needs met if you ask in a vague way that implies something is wrong with your partner.
In any case, there is always a major upside to asking in an effective way. Asking in an adult manner makes it a lot less likely that the request itself will trigger an upset. It is so important to be able to freely ask for what you need and want without that turning into a drama or an alienating experience for either or both of you.
Therefore the two critical speaking skills are:
Being clear and succinct
Speaking in a manner that tends to evoke empathy rather than resistance
GOOD ADVICE IS NOT THE TICKET
These skills can be difficult to master in moments of challenge or stress. The Relating with Heart—Basic True Love tool set is designed to support you in speaking in your own behalf in a compelling and effective manner, whenever you need extra help expressing yourself.
It can be difficult to remember and execute good advice when we are stressed or upset. There are simple communication structures that predictably serve to engender goodwill, empathy and alignment, even regarding challenging issues. They do this by promoting respectful and compelling speaking that is received by an empathetic listener.
When that happens, couples get underneath the places where they are polarized, feel threatened and disappointed. They are able to work out their differences inside the love and affection that drew them together in the first place. Understanding and practicing these skills is what Relating with Heart—Basic True Love is all about.
To learn a couple of simple, but highly effective, tools for:
1) Regularly experiencing a deeply positive and loving connection
2) Being able to quickly recover from stress and emotional blocks and distractions
Attend a FREE 2.5 hour Prelude. You will be pleasantly surprised by your experience in this mini couples retreat. This is a great way to start a date night feeling more connected, appreciated and in love.