Laura is a wonderful Marriage and Family Therapist in the Bay Area and clinical supervisor at Community Presbyterian Church in Danville, CA. You can learn more about Laura by visiting her website LauraTaggart.com.
The Gift of Listening
Listening with full attention to your mate is the foundation of a loving relationship. More than anything else, it conveys your desire to know them and prioritize their needs.
If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit, listening is difficult. I would rather be listened to and understood that to listen to my husband. I want him to be riveted to my concerns about my day, but when he wants to offload the stresses of his, my attention seems to wander elsewhere. Why is this? Why is listening so hard? When was the last time you listened to your mate with the sole intention of understanding their experience? Before we get to what we can do to hone our skills, let’s explore why listening is so challenging.
One reason listening is difficult is that we are prone to be easily distracted. A chore pops in to your mind while your husband is telling you about his day. You go out for a nice dinner and the television over the bar has a game on that draws your attention. Yesterday, I stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant and for the entire time I waited for my meal and consumed it, one young couple didn’t say one word to each other. They were completely absorbed by their smartphones. Technology, though extremely useful, can also rob us of moments of connection if we allow it.
Another common reason we struggle with listening is we lack the motivation. If we face the truth about ourselves, most of us are more invested in having our mate agree with us or hear us out than in listening carefully to them. We value being understood more than understanding our mate. Proverbs 18:2 has a word of wisdom about this: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.”
Closely related to this challenge is our inclination to be dismissive or resist listening to our mate when they don’t share our viewpoint. We don’t want to hear anything that goes against (or we think goes against) our own position. If we’re angry with our mate, we can stubbornly refuse to listen to their position as a form of protest or punishment.
Listening is also difficult because it’s just hard work. Setting ourselves aside for a time in order to focus on the thoughts, feelings, and concerns of our mate is an effort. It requires selflessness, focus, and patience. It is something we must intentionally choose to do over and over again. It does not come easy, nor is it completely natural. Although it is a sacrifice to listen well, it is likely one of the most loving things you can do for your partner.
So how do you overcome these challenges and offer this gift of listening to your mate? Here are five things you can do to become a loving listener:
1. Set aside time to listen. This may seem like a no-brainer but lack of time connecting is a key reason couples fall out of touch. Being intentional about saving time to talk daily can be like an oasis in the midst of the demands of life. Without consciously preserving your talk time, the distractions of kids, job expectations, and logistics of schedules can pull you away from each other. Set aside 20-30 minutes to download your day and share experiences.
2. Have the humility to recognize that you do wear tinted glasses. We often think that we see things clearly, that our perspective is right and our mate’s is wrong, or at least less right. We have little awareness that our position is colored by experiences of the past and our own self-protective way of viewing an issue. To listen attentively, you will need to understand that you do filter your mate’s communication. Try to be open, acknowledging your perspective is simply that- your perspective. Doing so will allow you to hear their different viewpoint with less reactivity and dismissiveness.
3. Check in with your mate on their intended meaning. We often jump to conclusions about what our mate means. We interpret their behavior or words, often with a great deal of confidence that we know what they meant. The truth is, our “lens” often distorts our mate’s intended meaning. The only way to get clear about what they meant is to ask them.
My husband is in sales and travels often. When he returns home, often arriving quite late at night, he insists on unpacking his suitcase. Be it 9pm or 1am, it doesn’t matter. He makes sure that bag is cleared out and put away. Early in marriage, I would urge him to leave it and come to bed, knowing he was tired and needed his rest, but he refused. I thought he was quirky and obsessive. Finally after about ten years of this I asked him why he did this. He told me the reason was that when he awoke in the morning he wanted no evidence that he had been away. He wanted to feel solidly at home. Endearing, right? So much for jumping to conclusions!
4. Invite your mate to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Most of us are comfortable sharing our opinions about things but many of us are not so at ease with sharing feelings. If you grew up in a home that didn’t welcome the expression of feelings or minimized or dismissed feelings, you may not be in touch with your own emotions and even less comfortable with those of your mate. This will require you to stretch but it is well worth the effort.
If you are the less verbal one, inviting your mate to share their thoughts and feelings can be scary. Sometimes husbands, especially avoider types, can get easily flooded by their wife’s verbal expressions. If you are concerned this might happen, tell your mate you really want to hear what they feel and think but it would help you stay attentive if the could be briefer. Demonstrate you are receptive and available by your eye contact, body language, and demeanor.
5. Demonstrate respect. Allow your mate to speak their truth. Consciously coach yourself to listen with the sole intention of understanding your partner’s world. If you’re too tired or unavailable when your mate wants to talk, set a time soon thereafter when they may have your undivided attention.
This is the sacrificial aspect to listening. To be a loving listener you put yourself aside for the time being and focus on your mate’s experience. Try to coach yourself to be open-hearted. If you find yourself wanting to interrupt or judge what they are saying, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your turn will come but right now you are seeking to understand them.
Listening is the “lubricant of love.” It lessens friction and keeps your relationship working together. Listening more that anything else communicates respect (for the other’s experience), caring (I can set myself aside), and love (you are important to me and I want to take the time to hear you). Although it does take effort, it is one of the most important gifts you can give to your mate.
Try an experiment this week and listen more intentionally to your mate. Let us know what happens!