There have been times in my marriage (I’m sure this will sound familiar to you) when I have been talking to my husband and I don’t feel like he is listening (in the way that I need – I’ll say more about that soon!). His face shows little emotion when I’m talking and he does not respond verbally. I then ask him, “Are you listening to me?” His response is “I can repeat every word you said”. I know that this is a familiar exchange between two people – so let’s talk about what is going on in this scenario.
Hearing vs. Listening:
To my husband’s credit, being able to repeat every word shows that he is ‘present’ with me during my sharing. And I know that his intention is good. He wants to listen, and to show his support to me. And yet, most of us need more. We need engaged listening. We need verbal support in the form of a validation of our experiences and our emotions. We need a show of curiosity. And perhaps more than anything we need empathy.
All of this being said let me say that we are rarely taught these skills. We may have experienced some of them, such as empathy and validation from others during our youth, which is certainly a way to learn, however, most have never had formal education in the art of listening skills!
When one is presenting a concern that they have to the other person, it is often the case that they may respond with a way to solve the problem. For example, “I hate my job. I work so hard, and receive so little respect and appreciation in return.” The response might be: “Why don’t you quit your job?” Unless the person is seeking a solution, problem-solving responses will often fall flat. The reason is because unsolicited problem-solving can feel like the listener does not understand what you are going through.
Here’s part of the problem. It can feel awful to be the ‘helpless’ listener to what your loved one is going through. Feelings of helplessness are hard to endure as the listener. Just to note, often, when I suggest to a ‘listener’ that they feel ‘helpless’, their first response is usually to tell me that they don’t feel that way. However the more they reflect on what they feel, the more it becomes clear that they do indeed feel helpless.
And let me say this too: I have found myself, at times, slipping into problem-solving mode while listening to my husband recount the events of his day. And every day I practice (as a therapist) all of the necessary listening skills that I am about to discuss with you!! It’s hard to watch our loved ones in distress and feel like we have nothing to offer them in terms of help. And yet, there is nothing better than lending your partner a supportive, engaged, empathetic, and validating ear. This is the ultimate help that you can offer them. They will feel supported, loved, cared for, understood, relieved, and then connected in a deeper way to you. And the result for the listener is that you will know that you’ve helped which will provide you with exactly what you need.
But what is active listening?
We crave the feeling of being understood in what we go through in life. What we most need is engaged, active listening. This means listening and then offering a validating response to your partner. But like I said, this is something that we need to learn.
Here’s an example of a validating response:
Speaker: I am getting so tired of my job. I work so hard and no one appreciates all that I do.
Listener: That must be so frustrating for you. It’s so hard to give them your best work and get so little in return.
I realize that most of us do not naturally communicate in this way, however this is the kind of response that most of us need from our partners. Validation provides us with the feeling that our partner is listening to us and understands what we are going through.
There is however a reason that there are times when one does not want to give a validating response to their partner. Let’s say for example that in my example above, the listener does not agree with their partner. Perhaps the listener believes that the speaker should not work as hard as they do. And more so, they might feel that work takes away from their time together. This is when it becomes very complicated. However, you do not have to agree with your partner in order to provide them with a validating response. If you notice in my example, the response is simply responding to what the speaker is going through without judgment. Keep in mind that I am introducing you to a listening skill, which means that continued learning is necessary!
Tips for Validating Responses:
~ Be open and present: Put away all technology! Use non-verbal communication in the form of ‘nodding your head’ while listening. You can also be an engaged listener by showing curiosity in the form of curious questions. In my example you might ask, “How do you wish your employer would show you appreciation?”
~ Reflect: You would do this by communicating what you’ve heard the person say, and do so without bias. It is important that you put what you’ve heard the other person say to you in your own words. And don’t worry if you get it wrong (I sometimes get it wrong!), this is simply an opportunity for the person to clarify what they are trying to communicate to you. You might even say, “I’m not sure if I’ve have this right but let me try to tell you what I’m hearing. Please let me know if I’m missing something.” This shows your intent of wanting to understand!
~ Authenticity: It is important to listen in an authentic manner. This means that you are not pretending to want to listen, or that you are doing it even if you are not in a good place as a listener. If your partner needs you to listen at a time when you are exhausted you might say, “I really want to support you but I want to listen to you when I know that I will be able to give you what you need. Can you give me an hour to unwind and I will be in a much better place!”
Additionally, we need to feel that the listener has a deepened sense of caring. This is felt by expressing empathy. This Ted Talk does a great job of describing empathy! Providing an empathetic response is most likely something that most need to learn. We are not a culture that provides much in terms of empathy. We tend to be a “get over it” culture and the truth is that all of us need and deserve empathy.
Empathy is simply recognizing the emotion in another person, and being able to ‘put yourself in their shoes’. Basically meaning that you can try to imagine what they feel. In my example the person describes feeling unappreciated at work. If you have ever felt unappreciated you know how awful that feels. An empathic response is not to say, “I know how you feel”, as this response takes away from the person. And empathic response is to say, “It feels awful to feel unappreciated”.
One last thought: Please keep in mind that these skills take time and patience from both of you. I just skimmed the surface in sharing a bit about how to actively listen! It takes time to learn a new skill. And give yourself credit for your intention to learn and grow!!
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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