"When you talk you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen you might learn something new" --attributed alternately to the Dalai Lama and author J.P. McEvoy.
"Are you a convincer or a listener?" asks Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage. I mention this because I like the term she uses: convincer.
As a therapist, I observe that couples who see me often begin with the idea that their spouse's viewpoint that differs from their own is "wrong" and that their own is" right." They try, never succeeding, to convince their partner to get their partner to agree with them.
When you disagree with someone about something you feel strongly about, do you promptly move into high persuasion gear to try to get the person to see it your way? Doing this both creates emotional distance between the two people. It also closes off the possibility of learning something new.
By listening carefully to understand the other person's viewpoint, in marriage and elsewhere, we enhance relationships and can stretch our minds.
How to Practice Active Listening
Below is a step-by-step description of how to do active listening, which is one of seven positive communication skills explained in my book, Marriage-Meetings-for-Lasting-Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted. These techniques can also be applied to benefit relationships with family members, friends, and coworkers:
Active listening involves more than just lending an ear to your partner. It requires complete concentration, giving space to the other person, and not injecting your own thoughts and feelings into the moment. It can take some self-control to hear what your partner wants to say and to postpone stating your own thoughts for a moment. While the technique may strike you as rather formal for a loving relationship, using it as directed is likely to foster emotional closeness and more acceptance and understanding of each other's point of view.
The instructions below are adapted from those in Changing Destructive Adolescent Behavior: A Parent Workbook, by Ralph Fry, Susan Mejia Johnson, Pete Melendez, and Dr. Roger Morgan.
Choose a Good Time
The first thing to do for successful active listening is to make sure that the conversation about a potentially sensitive topic occurs when both of you are calm and distractions are unlikely to occur. Then follow these six steps:
1. Stop what you are doing. Take the necessary time out to really listen to your partner.
2. Look at your partner. Making eye contact tells your partner that you are ready to listen. Body language and facial expression also indicate an interest in listening. Make sure that the nonverbal signals you send reflect a willingness to listen. Focus on your partner. Try to push everything else from your mind.
3. Listen to your partner. Listen without interrupting, arguing, or giving advice. Just listen. Notice if you are having a strong emotional reaction to your partner's words. If yes, breathe in and out slowly a few times to center yourself. You will have a chance to express yourself later, but for now just listen.
4. Rephrase or repeat what your partner says. This step encourages us to be good listeners. It also helps us to understand the other person's meaning and feelings. Rephrasing also helps the partner to recognize and clarify her or his feelings. Start with "I hear you saying..." Always check out with your partner whether your interpretation of what was communicated is accurate. Ask, "Am I correctly understanding what you are saying?" The speaker should clarify his or her meaning if the partner's interpretation seems inaccurate, after which step 4 should be repeated.
5. Be empathic. Seek to understand your spouse's emotions in the situation she or he is describing. Try to put yourself in your spouse's position. Save your advice for another time. Some people are afraid that if they are empathic they will have to give in to or agree with their partner. It is important to recognize that what we all want most is to feel understood.
6. (Optional) Reverse Speaker-Listener Roles After completing the above exercise to the point that your spouse clearly feels understood by you, you may want to express your viewpoint on the topic. If so, reverse roles. Share your own thoughts and feelings while your partner practices active listening.
Reviewing Benefits of Active Listening
Couples who benefit from therapy grow to accept differences as acceptable, and even interesting. These spouses have gained the ability to listen to each other respectfully instead of judging their partner for having different values or ideas.
For them, and for all of us, with understanding comes acceptance, and also the joy of continuing to learn more about ourselves and each other.
You may not change his mind but what a joy to learn something new, and more and more about him. Vive la difference!
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and author of Marriage-Meetings-for-Lasting-Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014).