What is the most fought about thing in marriage?

Are you a good listener with your partner?

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Swan Lake

Did you know that listening is as much about your partner feeling heard as it is about you understanding what they are saying? And did you know that when your partner feels heard that ONLY then can they relax and have a conversation that allows you to be on the same team going toward the same goal: one that works for you both.

I see many couples who come for help telling me “of course I listen but it doesn’t do any good!” Does that sound familiar? It could be because the art of listening includes being able to tell your partner what you hear them saying. And not just saying “I hear you.”

The way to demonstrate that you hear what someone is saying is to identify the feeling they are expressing and the meaning they are describing. So how do you do that? To start with create a rich vocabulary for feelings that you can draw upon when listening. Feelings can be divided into 5 feeling categories (this is not a hard science). I use these: HAPPPY, SAD, ANGRY, AFRAID, and CARING. Under each category there are a whole range of intensities. For example you can feel a little happy which might be labeled as pleased or content. Or you could be feeling a great deal of happiness, which could be more like ecstatic or elated. Let’s go through a few more: if you are feeling a little sad you might be feeling down or disappointed. If you are really sad you could be feeling depressed or despair while a medium sadness might be described as hurt. OK?

Angry might range from the lower intensity of annoyed to a higher intensity of mad to enraged. And caring can range from a little caring, which could be concern to a great deal of caring which could be adoration or love.

Once you are listening for the category of feeling and the level of intensity you will be able to name for your partner what you are hearing them say whether they are naming their feeling or not. At first its really helpful to use this format created by Robert Carkhuff which is the sentence “I hear that you feel_____(feeling word) ____because ____(meaning) ______.” Later you can use your own style but start with this just as you start to play an instrument by practicing the scales.

Here is what Jon’s and Alisha’s conversation used to be like even though Jon thought he was listening:
Alisha: I can’t believe that you would wander off at the party when I didn’t know any one. I don’t feel like you get how hard that is for me.
Jon: How was I supposed to know that you didn’t know anyone? And anyway you are big girl why not just meet some of them on your own.
Alisha: (walking out of the room) “See if I come to your stupid work party again.”

As you can imagine neither of them was feeling like they were on the same team. This took a few days before they could reconnect.
Now see the difference after they learned and practiced expressing in words what they heard.
Alisha: I can’t believe that you would wander off at the party when I didn’t know any one. I don’t feel like you get how hard that is for me.
Jon: I hear that you felt hurt and abandoned when I left you at the party. And you feel disappointed that it didn’t seem like I knew that it was hard for you.

Alisha: Yeah really need you to stay closer because it’s just too uncomfortable for me.
Jon: I hear that it feels so uncomfortable that you need an ally you can count on being there. I can do that for sure at the next party. I am really glad you let me know.

Can you see how this little difference transformed the interaction from antagonistic to cooperative? From distancing to bringing closeness. From Jon being defensive to Jon being able to stay in his heart and maintain the connection.
This format takes a bit of practice. But this form of listening can mean the difference between sleeping on the coach and snuggling in bed. Give it a try and leave a comment or a question.

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Shana Parker

Couples Coach, Licensed Psychologist, a well loved wife, proud mother, and writer.