When couples come to my office for counseling with relationship problems
, the most common thing I hear is, “We want to learn to communicate better." In fact, the Number One complaint I hear from women is, "He doesn't listen to me—I don't feel heard."
In this post, with examples and simple instructions, I’ll share my best love advice to deepen, strengthen, and even save relationships.
Meet Madison and Tyler
When I first met Madison and Tyler, they’d been married for three years, and had a four-month-old infant. In our first meeting, they told me that they'd planned the pregnancy, and had looked forward to the baby's arrival. After the baby was born, Madison seemed to function well for the first week or so. Her mother came to help out, and Tyler took time off from work. When she was home alone with the baby, however, things began to change. She started worrying about every little thing—not just normal, new-mother worry, but worry that led to full-blown panic. She called Tyler 20 times a day seeking reassurance; she frequently begged him to come home early.
He wasn't pleased with so many interruptions, but tried to be patient, coming home early whenever possible. He hoped that Madison would soon adjust, but as time went on, her anxieties only worsened, and she sank into depression. She rarely got dressed, and spent much of her time in bed. She managed to take care of the baby’s immediate needs, but didn't seem to enjoy any part of it. She’d withdrawn from Tyler, and they frequently argued.
As I listened to them in our sessions, I realized that Tyler meant well, but the way he responded to Madison actually made the situation worse. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes four ways of responding that hinder what's known as empathic listening:
- Evaluating—agreeing or disagreeing
- Probing—asking questions
- Advising—offering solutions
- Interpreting—explaining motives; trying to “psych out” the other person
Notice how in the conversation below, these four activities block understanding and compassion, never allowing Madison and Tyler to reach the heart of their troubles:
Madison: I can't take it anymore!
Tyler: What's the matter now? (probing)
Madison: I'm going crazy at home with the baby. I feel like I'm falling apart. You just don't understand how hard it is.
Tyler: Why don't you call Mary? Maybe you could get together with her and her kids. (advising)
Madison: She's not going to have much time for me. That's not going to solve anything, anyway.
Tyler: Have you tried calling your mother? Maybe she could give you some advice on how to get yourself together. (advising, evaluating)
Madison: You just don't get it, do you?
Tyler: I think it's fatigue. You haven't been sleeping well lately. Sleep deprivation is making you irritable. Why don't you go to bed early tonight? I'll take care of the baby. (interpreting, evaluating, advice)
Madison was trying to reach out to Tyler in this conversation. She may not have done it especially well, but she was clearly at the end of her rope, hoping that he would grab the other end. But he wasn't listening—not really. He heard her words, but wasn't making an effort to understand her experience. He responded from his own frame of reference: When is she going to snap out of this? I've never seen her like this. This should be the happiest time in our life. Maybe it means there's something wrong with me if I can't help her.
Tyler was also, understandably, frightened, and this made it difficult for him to listen effectively. Once we explored his concerns, I taught them both some listening skills:
- While listening, try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Focus on what he or she is feeling, not just what they’re saying.
- Accept your partner’s right to have his or her own thoughts and feelings.
- Demonstrate your acceptance through your posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
- While listening, trying to avoid asking questions, expressing your own opinions, offering solutions, or making judgments.
- After your partner has finished speaking, summarize and restate the most important thoughts and feelings that were expressed.
Note the difference in this conversation when Tyler applies these guidelines:
Madison: I feel like I'm at my breaking point. I don't know what to do.
Tyler: It sounds like you feel pretty overwhelmed.
Madison: Yeah. I've never felt this bad in my life. Most of the time I feel like I'm going crazy.
Tyler: I wish there was something I could do to help. I hate seeing you in such pain.
Madison: I feel like you don't understand. You just want me to snap out of it and be like I used to be.
Tyler: You're probably right. It's hard for me to understand what you're going through, and I do miss the good times we used to have. I want to understand. Can you tell me more?
Madison: I don't think you really want to hear all the awful stuff that's going through my mind.
Tyler: I know I haven't always been a very good listener, but I want to do better. I want to share your pain if you'll allow me to.
Madison: I just want you to hold me.
Tyler cradled Madison in his arms, and she sobbed. It took courage for Tyler not to rush in with reassurance and advice. But by doing so, Tyler’s understanding of his wife’s pain deepened, and allowed them to become closer. In addition, having Tyler’s support and understanding gave Madison the courage to seek the help she needed for what, as had become clear, was postpartum depression.
This kind of listening may not feel natural to you at first. That's OK; you don't have to listen perfectly. As long as you're trying, your partner will sense your good intentions—your desire to listen and understand—and that will go a long way to strengthening your relationship.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. My husband, Greg, and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.