Are You Listening?
Janie and Tom are sitting across in a restaurant talking after having dinner one evening. Janie is talking about the conflict she is experiencing with one of her co-workers. Tom appears to be listening to her, but is he?
If there were a bubble over Tom’s head (like in a cartoon) we would see that Tom is contemplating what he thinks Janie should say to the co-worker and how he would handle the situation differently. He is busy formulating his response to Janie as she continues to talk. Tom thinks he is listening. After all, he is looking at Janie and nodding his head but…his attention is focused on his own thoughts. As soon as Janie pauses for just a moment, Tom jumps in with his opinion about the situation and starts advising Janie as to what she should do to “fix” the situation.
I don’t feel heard. He/she doesn’t listen to me. These are without a doubt the most common complaints heard by a marriage counselor. Failure to really listen to what your partner is saying is a fundamental flaw in countless relationships. Real listening goes beyond simply remaining quite until your partner pauses for a breath of air, thereby giving you an opportunity to insert your comments.
Really listening requires complete attention and focus. It involves not just listening to the words but hearing the meaning and striving to understand the emotion and meaning behind the words. Really listening to your spouse or partner is one of the most vital skills in creating a successful relationship. It is, however, a skill that only very few couples have fully developed.
Real listening involves paying close attention to the actual words the other person is using as well as the tone of voice. It involves paying attention to the body language and the expressions on the face of the person speaking. Research has shown that communication is only seven percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal, i.e., body language and tone of voice. There is no way to pay attention to all these elements of communication if you are caught up in your own head listening to your own thoughts and formulating your response to what you think you are hearing.
To really listen means you have to ignore all the voices inside; the ones making the judgments and criticisms. It means ignoring the urge to advice and to fix the problem. Most couples are surprised to find that their partners frequently don’t want advice, solutions, criticisms or to hear alternative solutions. If they do, they will specifically ask for it. If they are not asking, don’t give it.
If you absolutely feel the need to offer advice, ask permission. “Would it be alright if I shared some thoughts?” Stay away from any advice that remotely sounds like blame, criticism or judgment regarding your partner. This is the quickest way to evoke a feeling of defensiveness in your partner.