We Can Work It Out

How to Resolve Conflict, Improve Communication, and Repair Your Relationships

Listening with Your Heart

How to use your ears to resolve your conflicts.

God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we would listen more and speak less.

On the road to conflict resolution, listening is the superhighway.

Not surprisingly, listening is nearly absent in conflicted relationships. When we don’t feel heard, "discussions" soon cycle out of control, meaning no resolution occurs. In this climate, couples remain terminally ticked off. The next time that hot topic resurfaces we are even more likely to blast our mates. But when we come at our partners with both barrels, they want to put up their dukes rather than prick up their ears. The louder we get, the less our partners want to listen. Instead, they resort to Defending, Justifying and Counterblaming. In no time, you have a major vicious cycle on your hands.

I’m sure you’re wondering how to break free of this cycle. Learn to listen to each other!

Before you roll up your sleeves and master listening skills, we need to identify and eliminate the three behaviors that are polar opposites of good listening. They are: Defending, Justifying and Counterblaming (turning the tables back on your partner). Let me give you an example of each:

Defending and Justifying: Mary tells Peter that she is hurt because he forgot her birthday. Instead of listening and understanding her pain, he defends and justifies his mistake by saying, "I had a good reason for forgetting. I got caught up preparing our taxes and I forgot to check my calendar."

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Counterblaming: Mary tells Peter that she is upset because he forgot to take his turn grocery shopping. Instead of listening and understanding, Peter counterattacks by saying, "Well, you forgot to wash my laundry yesterday."

I bet you're wondering why so many couples resort to Defending, Justifying and Counterblaming instead of listening.

The answer is simple. In distressed relationships, listening has been lacking for so long that both partners feel starved to be heard. Not trusting that the other will listen, they both jump in at the same time, shoving their points down each other’s throats.

Here's the bottom line: Listening is the cement of a happy relationship or marriage. To avoid break-ups and divorce, you must vow to move heaven and earth to do a better job of truly hearing each other. 

How To Be A Good Listener 

One way to become a good listener is for you and your partner to take turns being both the speaker and the listener. For starters, practice with a topic that hasn't reach subatomic proportions. Let the partner who is presenting the "gripe" have what I call the Emotional Right of Way to speak first. Don't worry; the listener will get his or her turn to be heard, too. When the speaker feels completely heard and understood, it's time to switch roles.

Since you're perfecting your listening skills, it's important to know that being a good listener is more than passing a hearing test. If a listener merely sits quietly and says nothing in response, the speaker will think that he or she is talking to a gerbil. Good listeners are masters at conveying, in various ways, that they have heard and understood what has been said.

To become good listeners, both you and your partner must master the following three skills.

1. Mirroring: 

With mirroring, the listener restates exactly what has been said. The listener must be careful not to overuse this skill, or else he or she will sound like Polly the Parrot. Here's what mirroring sounds like:

Speaker: I am so sad that my boss is retiring.

Mirroring back: You're sad that your boss is retiring.

2. Restating: 

The listener repeats, in his or her own words, what the speaker has said.

Speaker: I am so sad that my boss is retiring.

Restating: Your boss's retirement really has you down, huh?

3. Questioning to Clarify: 

With this skill, the listener questions (not challenges) the speaker to make sure he or she is clear on what the speaker has said. If the listener has understood, the speaker confirms that fact. If the listener is off the mark, the speaker restates his or her position, and once again, the listener asks questions until there is a meeting of minds.

If you were to diagram the Questioning to Clarify skill, it would look like loops within loops. The listener's job is to keep looping back until the speaker and the listener are on the same page-- meaning that the listener has completely understood the speaker.

Listening Roadblocks

Sometimes we fail in our attempts to listen because we simply can't understand why our mates feel the way they do about a given situation. If either of you finds yourself facing this obstacle, the following exercise will help you put yourself on your mate's emotional side of the fence.

When practicing this skill, forget the particular situation that is upsetting your mate and instead focus on the feelings he or she is having. Now, think of a situation that has triggered similar feelings in you. When you are on the same emotional page as your mate, you will find it easier to identify with and to listen to his or her feelings.

Guilt is another common listening roadblock, especially for men. When a man is told that he said or did something to upset his wife or girlfriend, all his bells and whistles go off. Don't forget, he was socialized to protect and care for his wife and children. When he’s told that he failed in his job as a man and husband, guilt starts working overtime. This causes him to switch into the other role that he was socialized to play: the doer and fixer. Now he makes it his job to make your boo-boo go bye-bye. Unfortunately, since he has not been socialized to handle the emotional side of life, he is clueless on how to ease your pain. So the poor lug resorts to sentences like: "Don't feel that way" or "Don't be upset." Unfortunately, these responses infuriate most women. Being told to "get over it" is majorly annoying when all a woman wants is to be heard and understood. So, please, have patience with your guilt-riddled macho man. Remember, he only wants to make you feel better. He just doesn't know how to go about doing so.

The following sentence will help most men grasp that the way to fix your pain is to simply listen and understand, nothing more. Here goes: "I know you want me to feel better. Just listening is all I need." Try it and watch the magic that happens.

If your partner still finds it hard to listen to you, the following hypothetical situation may help him/her understand what you need. Say: "If you accidentally trip over my foot and break it, my foot still hurts and I need to be consoled. I know you didn't mean to hurt (or upset) me, but I still need you to understand my pain."

As you master the art of listening with your heart, you will be amazed to discover that many of your conflicts melt like snow cones in summer. When conflict is on the back burner, your love can finally assume its proper front and center position.  

You will find a complete discussion of how to overcome all the impasses to good listening in my new Hay House book, Kiss Your Fights Goodbye: Dr. Love’s 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Connection.

Dr. Jamie Turndorf Ph.D., is a relationship therapist, emotional communication expert, author and advice columnist.

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