How being a good listener can radically improve your marriage

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Talking is only one part of the communication process in marriage. Real communication happens when we listen too.

Duh? Really? I kind of knew that.

But did you know that in an average conversation one partner hears only 13% of what the other partner is saying?

We may be good at talking, but evidently we’re lousy at listening.

Here’s how being a good listener can radically improve your marriage.

Every time Lloyd would share his frustration with Fran, her reaction would shut down her ability to listen.

No doubt part of the problem was how Lloyd talked to her.

It’s not what you say but how you say it that matters.

Lloyd: ‘When I came home I felt like you practically threw the baby and me, and start barking orders. I know you’ve had a hard day, but you act as if I’ve done nothing all day. I work hard and I don’t deserve this when I get home.’

OK Lloyd, let’s back up and start over! No wonder your wife is not listening! You’ll never get anywhere saying it like that! Can you stop using accusatory ‘you’ statements and talk about what ‘I’ am experiencing in a way your partner can hear you?!

The first rule of ‘safe’ communication is guess what?  SAFE! It has to be SAFE!

LLOYD (second try): ‘When I came home it seemed you were frustrated, and you told me to take the baby and the dog for a walk. When I heard that, I felt like I didn’t get a chance to take a breath from the stressful day I had.’

Even with Lloyd working at being a better SENDER of info, this usually turns into an argument with Fran.

FRAN: ‘You think YOU’VE had a stressful day! Come on! I’ve seen you at work. Making some calls, then having a leisurely lunch with your co-workers. Try being here with the kids all day! I wish I had an office to escape to!’

Come on Fran, these are fighting words and you know it. Use your skills now. Make it SAFE.

In order to have a safe and productive conversation, you have to have SENDER and RECEIVER responsibility.

But today is about listening…so what can a RECEIVER do to become a better listener?

Try these three steps.

1. Mirror your partner’s words.

Repeat back what you heard as close as possible to how it was said.

‘OK Chuck, you keep talking about ‘mirroring’. That’s a counseling tool. This is real life where the pace of life makes your head spin. I can’t stop in the middle of everything to use this rigid therapeutic structure you’re talking about.’

I get that.

You don’t want to come off like you’re using some counseling technique in a normal conversation. But there’s good news.

You can still tap into the power of mirroring as a listening tool.

So, as your partner is talking, listen with the purpose of mirroring.

How do I do that?

After a few sentences, stop your partner and say something like…

If I get what you’re saying, you said’¦’ and simply repeat what you heard.

Or, ‘What I hear you saying is’¦’

This will help you regulate your emotions AND give your partner a good feeling.

A feeling of being heard. A feeling of being valued. A feeling that his or her words matter.

Think about it. If the average partner hears only 13%, what will be the impact when you hear 100% of what you’re partner is saying

Mirroring can help you do that.

Your partner will feel safe and be able to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.

FRAN: ‘Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. I heard you say, you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.’

That’s good Fran! Now go to step 2.

2. Check your accuracy.

After you’ve mirrored your partner’s words, check for accuracy by saying something like, ‘Did I get it?’ And then keep listening for any corrections or clarifications.

Then, mirror those additions back to your partner as well.

Continue to check your accuracy until your partner tells you, ‘You got it.’


3. Turn on your curiosity.

Ask, ‘Is there more about that?’

That question will continue to make it safe for your partner to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.

And for you, as a listener, it will turn on your curiosity like a switch turns on a light.

Curiosity is vital to being a good listener. Why? Because it empowers me to regulate my emotional reaction.

Listening breaks down when I start feeling reactive to something that is said. Something I think is not true. Something that is different from my reality. Something that is not according to the way I see things.

When that happens my auto-response is to stop listening and start ‘reloading’ what I want to say in reaction. At that point I’m not listening to my partner. I’m listening to myself.

As human beings we have a fundamental, unconscious objection to difference. This objection to difference happens when we don’t feel connected. And it’s a paradox, because you can’t get to connection when you object to difference.

When I object  to difference, it produces polarization. And that shuts down my ability to listen.

Curiosity is what disrupts that objection to difference, allowing me to listen to everything my partner is saying.

Asking, ‘Is there more about that?’, does a number on my brain. I cannot be curious and object to difference at the same time. The brain pathways cannot run those two directions at once.

So now I’m in control, not my emotions!

Curiosity helps me hold my reality and my partner’s reality at the same time – to be able to see that we are different, and that it’s OK.

Let’s pick up where we left off with Fran’¦

FRAN: ‘Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. You said you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.’

‘Is there more about that?’

LLOYD: ‘Yes, I guess I’m feeling like what I do doesn’t matter. That reminds me of how hard I worked to make straight A’s growing up, and even when I succeeded, it felt like it didn’t matter.’

Whoa! What’s happening here?

Lloyd realized that his upset was not just about Fran’s comment. It was related to the baggage of the past he was carrying.

Because Fran made it safe and really listened to Lloyd, he got in touch with his deeper issue.

They both realized that the conflict was about the deeper pain that Lloyd felt – that what he did didn’t matter.

This part of Lloyd’s world instantly became integrated into their relationship. And Fran grew in a new capacity and sensitivity to Lloyd.

The result? Transformation.

All because one partner decided to listen!

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    Author: Chuck Starnes

    Chuck Starnes is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples find the safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness they are looking for together. He also helps organizations become more productive by improving relationship and communication skills.