As a therapist, I do a lot of couples therapy. That means I deal frequently with warring, dysfunctional relationships in most cases. Most people enter couples therapy as a last resort to save their marriage or relationship. Some expect me to tell them what to do. Others are surprised when I tell them it is not my job to save their marriage, but theirs. I always remember one couple I had who only spoke with each other in the sessions we had arranged twice a week. The first two sessions were purely about them talking over each other, shouting and insulting. Midway through the second session, they asked me what they should do. I took a risk and said they should get a divorce because it is clear that they do not listen to or understand each other. They suddenly became united against me and I said… Ok. let’s start work.
Helping people in relationships is part of my daily work. I write about it frequently, I have written a book about our quest for true love and what that means because I believe a relationship with the right person is a major factor in our own sense of well-being. It goes wrong when we spend too much time with the wrong people and we fail to realise it or are not prepared to face the truth. When you do find the right person (never an exact science), it is then a question of finding a framework that will give you the best chance of staying together. Most observers including myself, will highlight such factors as trust, honesty, respect, meeting of each other’s needs, communication and most importantly conflict management as important. I agree with all of those but if you do not have a focus on the relationship, none of the above matter. What do I mean by focus? That means making your partner and the relationship a priority and always thinking…”Is what I am about to do or say likely to be hurtful or helpful to my relationship?”. One of the key issues in this process is the ability to listen and listen effectively.
The one factor in the example above runs through many situations I have experienced in my professional and personal life. People do not listen to understand, they listen to reply, that is, they are waiting for a gap to get their view across. They generally do not have the ability to give the other psychological air, put themselves in another’s shoes and understand another person’s frame of reference. It might be difficult when parts of you are screaming at you to defend yourself, while another set is telling you to escape.
It is very easy after a few years of living together to take what your partner is going to say for granted, make assumptions or use brutish control attempts to shut down any conversations you find uncomfortable by stonewalling and withdrawing. However, part of keeping a relationship fresh and alive is to work diligently on such issues.
As an avid fan of Stephen Covey’s work, I often teach couples how to listen effectively based on his best selling book, the 7 habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 5, seek first to understand, before being understood is the basis for listening effectively, or as he says.. do not prescribe before diagnosing! It is the one single factor, more than any other, that once mastered can better a relationship.
It is a technique that can help manage and avoid disruptive and assaulting behaviours. The foundation of the technique can be summarised in 6 simple steps. Once this is done, the credibility of your argument increases to the point that effective communication takes place:
Be Prepared. Get your thoughts in order so that effective listening can take place. If you need to delay discussion until this happens, communicate that to your partner. Never attempt communication when anger is likely to make it difficult.
Provide the speaker with your undivided attention. This is one time “multi-tasking” or “rapid refocus” will get you in trouble. Don’t interrupt even if you feel the urge to do so. If effective communication is taking place, your time will come to put your point across. Keep eye contact and avoid doing other things in the process. Put phones and other distractions to one side. Turn off the TV and find a space space to talk.
Be non-judgemental. Do not minimise or trivialise the speaker’s issue. Avoid auto-biographical responses based on YOUR experience. Avoid at all costs bringing in past issues, assumption or other unresolved issues, especially for “point-scoring” purposes. Never “gaslight” your partner into believing that the issues raised are not “real”. Avoid “snappy, off the cuff remarks” that will close down communication.
Read the speaker. Observe the emotions behind the words. Is the speaker angry, afraid, frustrated or resentful. Respond to the emotion as well as the words. This means “being in the moment” with the speaker.
Be Quiet. Do not feel you must have an immediate reply. Often if you allow for some quiet after the speaker has vented, they themselves will break the silence and offer a solution. See the difference between stonewalling as a punishment and defensive measure and an empathetic silence.
Assure your understanding. Ask clarifying questions and restate what you perceive the speaker to be saying. Avoid probing and challenging questioning that come from your experience and assumption. Question for understanding. Be aware of any cultural barriers to communication. Paraphrase for clarification.
I often hear people say ”I am a good listener” but I often wonder how true this is. My experience is that this a rare quality that few truly possess. However, once mastered it can turn something good to something great, can make quantum changes in perceptions of other people.
Equally, when you come across someone who can listen effectively, there is no better feeling in the world than to be truly understood by another human being. Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you are dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You are listening to understand. You are focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul. Until you can do this as a couple, can you truly say that love exists?
However good communication between a couple is, conflict will always raise its head. Many couples fear conflict and do their very best to avoid it happening. However, it is not about keeping conflict out but how a couple deals with it when it inevitably occurs. In itself, conflict is not a problem; how it is handled, however, can bring people together or tear them apart. Poor communication skills, disagreements and misunderstandings can be a source of anger and distance, or a springboard to a stronger relationship and happier future.
Remember that the goal of effective communication skills should be mutual understanding and finding a solution that pleases both parties, not “winning” the argument or “being right”. This solution should be helpful not harmful to the relationship. This does not work in every situation, but sometimes (if you are having a conflict in a romantic relationship) it helps to hold hands or stay physically connected as you talk.