Changing the Game: Listening to Your Partner like a HERO
It probably will come as no surprise, but more often than not the biggest concern couples bring to therapy is a lack of communication. The truth is there is not a lack of communication, there are plenty of things being communicated to one another. There is, however, a lack of effective and team-building communication, which is crucial to building an enduring and empowered relationship. When communication becomes a regular problem, it is time to try something new.
When relationships start to struggle and the communication begins to breakdown, each partner has in mind what the other needs to do to change. Unfortunately, providing this list of things our partner should do to make things better does not usually go over so well and we get upset when they become defensive. Ironically, we feel our partner is out of line and being a jerk when they provide their list of what we should do to change, even though we feel justified providing our list. It is not hard to see why this strategy doesn’t work!
No one really likes to be told what to do, and instead of collaborating we are now competing as partners. This Opposite Team Mindset does nothing beneficial for the relationship. The fact is the only way we can impact our relationship’s communication pattern is to change something on our part. In this way, we change the pattern because of our behavior changes. The more we do this, the more likely we are to influence our partner into trying something new as well.
To build an enduring and empowered relationship, we need to be growing in our communication skills continually. The way you communicated when you first got together will be much different once you have years of history, habits, and life’s stressors coming at you. If we are not taking time to work on communication regularly, the quality of our relationship will begin to erode.
One dimension of communication that is crucial to learn, but difficult to do, is listening. Often when there is a stressful conversation, both parties want to express their view without taking the time to understand the others. We are hearing instead of listening. Hearing is seeking out the evidence for our point of view, formulating responses without paying full attention, and not searching for the deeper meaning of the message our partner is sending.
Listening, on the other hand, is taking the time to set our ego and views aside in an attempt to enter our partner’s world. When working with couples in therapy, a lot of them find when they turn down the volume on the conversation in their head and tune into the one they are having with their partners, there are fewer differences in views than previously thought. The problem is, when we are just hearing, we are only gathering the evidence for where our points of view are different rather than similar.
Listening helps us overcome this sense of division by making sure we know what our partner is attempting to communicate. We are asking questions to get clarification on points we don’t understand and attempting to grasp the full picture of their message. It is not until our partner has let us know we have the full picture that we start to compare their views with the one in our head. You might just find you are not as far apart as you originally thought.
For empowered couples, listening is the key ingredient in their communication that helps them to endure. Without effective listening skills, the relationship will struggle to grow and move forward. Unfortunately, even though listening is a critical component of building a strong relationship, it is not the easiest thing to do. Our emotions, egos, thoughts, wants, needs, biases, hurt, excitement, lack of care or interest, stress, and so many other things get in the way of us doing it well.
Also, a lot of us have not learned a lot of effective listening skills. That is why we do not see anything wrong with unloading on our partner our list of wants for them to change but become incredibly defensive and confrontive when they do the same. The truth is our communication will be more effective when each party is committed to listening to the other.
To help combat the obstacles that get in the way of listening effectively, you can try the powerful strategy of listening like a HERO. When we listen like a HERO, we are going to be showing our partners Humility, Empathy, Respect, and Open-Mindedness. Let’s take a look at each one of these to see how they can impact your relationship!
Dealing with stressful conversations in our relationships is not easy. At times, our partner is going to have gripes about us that we are going to hear about whether we like it or not. The key to making these types of discussions work in favor of your relationship rather than against is to make sure that we are listening with humility. What does that mean, exactly?
Listening with humility means our partner will be able to express their side of the story, even the parts that we may not like, without us interrupting them. We are not going to just focus on what we think is wrong or what we feel is an attack on us, we are looking for the deeper message. This does not mean we will set our needs and wants aside. Rather, we will wait until it is our turn to talk to express our side of the story. When we are listening though, we are listening to understand rather than to react or respond.
Listening with humility keeps the long-term for our relationship in mind. We know that listening will help strengthen our connection with our partner both now and in the long run. Humility also allows us to hear where we might need to make some corrections in our approach and behavior. The fact is, in a relationship, both partners can always make adjustments, and the more willing we are to hear where we can improve, the more powerful of a partner we will be!
The willingness to try and understand another person’s experience and emotions by putting yourself in their shoes is empathy. This is different than sympathy, which is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is a much deeper way to relate to others and creates strong connections between people.
Empathy is a skill that must be worked on throughout your life. It is an incredible show of humility, as you must set aside your emotions and thoughts for a moment to enter the world of the other person. When someone shows us empathy, the way we look at and feel with this person changes immediately. We have an internal need to be understood, and empathy is the most powerful way for someone to meet this need.
While it is true that we will never know with 100% accuracy what someone is going through, we can search for points of connection and similarity. You know what it feels like to be disappointed, hurt, embarrassed, and so many other things. We can connect with our partner when they are expressing their experience. We cut through the surface-level thoughts of what they are saying about us, and look for the deeper emotion and experience. It is surprising what can happen when we stop defending ourselves and connect with our partner's experience instead!
In our relationships, we all want to feel respected by our partners. The interesting thing is when we get stuck in a conflict cycle, we want respect but are not usually willing to show it back. Yet, in a relationship, if you want to receive respect, you need to be giving it first. Respect cannot be demanded; it must be earned.
Think about someone you hold with high respects. How do they treat people? You can model some of your behaviors after them to help show respect to your partner. Ask your partner what it is you are doing when you are showing them respect and what how you are behaving the times that you are not showing respect. Make sure to take the time also to let your partner know what respect means to you, how it can be shown, and what disrespect looks like to you.
Showing our partners respect allows the room for them to express their side of the story. When we feel that we can be ourselves and express what is on our minds, our defenses lower and we think more about what we will say. Enduring couples overcome stressful conversations and moments together because of the respect they continually show one another. It would be wise to make this an essential ingredient in your relationship.
How often do you find yourself in arguments assuming that you already know the story? Would you say you are 100% correct all the time or do you tend to miss some details? The fact is when we go into a tough conversation with our partners believing we already know what happened, we are closing the door on our partner to have any say and we are running off assumptions. This is dangerous territory to be in because we are not thinking about what happens if we are wrong.
Being open-minded when we go into tough conversations can be hard to do, especially if we tend to be a reactive or defensive person. However, being open-minded opens to door to more effective communication. Instead of going on the offensive and veering the conversation off course, we help keep it focused on the problem at hand. We listen to our partner to understand and to look for things that we have not thought of before.
Everyone likes to feel heard and understood and dislikes when the other person acts like they know everything about you and why you did what you did. Being open-minded keeps us willing to listen to our partners, even if what they have to say is not easy for us to hear. It means searching for areas where we can grow as a partner, where this is holes in our understanding, and what can be done better next time.
If you start to sense that you are moving from an open-minded perspective to one that is more closed, you are likely becoming defensive and reactive. At this point, it is time to stop the conversation, take a break, and come back later and try again. The same can be said with all of the components of listening like a HERO. If you find yourself slipping in any category, it is time to take a break. Couples that rush to the end will only find more conflict and disconnect. Take your time, there are no short cuts when it comes to building an empowered and enduring relationship.
Listening is essential to building a lasting and empowered relationship. If we want our partners to listen to us more, we need to show them the way through our own behavior. When we ask them to do things that we are not willing to provide ourselves, there will be imbalance and disconnect in the relationship. It is when we help create a culture in our relationship that celebrates listening and working together that we will work as a team and build a lasting connection. Help make each other heroes in your relationship by listening like a HERO. If you want to read more about communication, check out our post on eight areas of communication for couples.