How we talk and listen to each other defines how marriage goes and whether or not we are happy to see our partner at the end of the day. It comes as no surprise that most of us are more motivated to improve our talking skills than to attend to the other half of the conversational equation.
The truth is that intimacy with our partner rises or falls in direct proportion to our capacity to listen well. Listening with an open heart is the ultimate spiritual act. It is the greatest gifts we can give to our partner, and ultimately to ourselves.
The problem is that we're all defensive a fair amount of the time, although we may be better able to observe defensiveness in other people. Once we’re in defensive or reactive mode we can’t take in new information or see two sides of an issue—or better yet, seven or eight sides.
Defensiveness is normal and universal. It is also the archenemy of listening. Defensiveness makes it impossible to truly know our partner or be known.
This 12 Step program from Marriage Rules that can help us lower our defensiveness. The rules are simple, which doesn't mean easy.
1. Name it. Defensiveness is that immediate kneejerk, “But, But…But…” response and heightened sense of tension that may be activated when our partner says, “We have to talk.” In defensive mode, we automatically listen for the inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions in our partner’s complaint, so that we can refute errors, make our case, and remind the other party of their wrongdoings. Becoming aware of our defensiveness can give us a tiny, crucial bit of distance from it.
2. Breathe. Defensiveness starts in the body. When we feel threatened, our central nervous system overheats and makes us tense and on guard, unable to take in much new information. So, do what you can to calm yourself. Try slowing down your breathing, exhaling to a slow, silent count of 1 to 5, and taking a long deep breath between the time your partner’s voice drops off and yours starts. We will always listen poorly when we’re tense and on guard with an overheated central nervous system.
3. Don’t interrupt. If you can’t listen without interrupting, it’s a good indication that you haven’t calmed down.
4. Don’t listen when you can’t. Trying to listen when you can’t does more harm than good. Tell your partner that you want to have the conversation, and that you recognize its importance, but that you can’t have it right now.
5. Ask for specifics. This will help clarify your partner’s point and show that you care about understanding her (“Can you give me another example where you felt I was putting you down?”) Note: asking for specifics is not the same thing as nitpicking—The key is to be curious, not to cross-examine. Don’t act like a lawyer even if you are one.
6. Find something to agree with. You may only agree with two percent of what your partner is saying, and still find a point of commonality in that two percent (“I think you’re right that I’ve been coming home stressed-out from work”). This will shift the exchange out of combat into collaboration.
7. Apologize for your part. There’s almost always something to apologize for when we’ve had a difficult experience with a partner. Even making a general and genuine comment like, “I’m sorry for my part in all of this” can indicate to your partner that you’re capable of taking responsibility, not just evading it.
8. No buts. When we’re defensive, we may begin a slew of sentences with “But”—rebutting what we should be trying to take in. Even if we’re listening with open minds, the word “but” conveys the impression that we are discounting or negating the other person’s perspective. Watch out for this little grammatical sign of defensiveness, and temporarily ban it from your vocabulary. Instead, ask, “Do I have this right?” and “Is there more you haven’t told me?”
9. Don’t counter-criticize. There is a time to bring up your own grievances, but that time is not when your partner has taken the initiative to voice her complaints. If your complaints are legitimate, all the more reason to save them for a time when they can be a focus of conversation and not a defense strategy.
10. Let your partner know he or she has been heard. Even if nothing has been resolved, tell your partner that she’s reached you: “It’s not easy to hear what you’re telling me, but I want you to know that I’m going to give it a lot of thought.” Take a day to genuinely consider her point of view.
11. Save your disagreements for a second conversation. When we’re feeling defensive, we try to do everything in one conversation, as if it’s the last one we’re ever going to have. Tell yourself early on that you’re going to take a day to think about your partner’s point of view, and that you don’t have to make your points now. If you decide this in advance, it will free you to listen better and help your partner to feel heard.
12. Thank your partner for initiating the talk. Even if you don’t like what your partner is saying you can thank her for initiating a difficult conversation. Then bring the conversation up in the next 48 hours. Show your partner that you are continuing to think about his or her point of view and that you are willing to revisit the issue. Try saying something like, “I’ve been thinking about our conversation and I’m really glad that we had that talk.”
Listening without defensiveness is a challenge of a lifetime. Begin with the first three steps (Name it, Breathe, Don’t interrupt).
Give yourself a medal of honor if you achieve just that!