Marilyn Wedge Ph.D.

Suffer the Children

6 Tips for Compassionate Listening

Listen to your partner so he or she feels understood.

Posted Jan 15, 2019

Compassionate listening is a critical skill for a strong relationship, so that your partner feels cared for and understood. Here are six key elements of listening compassionately to your partner when he or she wants to share their feelings.

  1. Don't try to fix the problem or give advice unless specifically asked. Sometimes we just want to be listened to and have our feelings heard. When we're hurting we need empathy, not advice. It's natural to want to help and offer instant solutions to someone we love, but advice might not be what that person needs at that moment. Men, especially, tend to be problem-solvers but should bear this in mind and just listen to the problem sometimes.
  2. Be patient and don't get frustrated if your partner can't say what he or she feels right away. Sometimes it takes time for a person to find words to express what he or she is feeling. Silence and patience help people give voice to their feelings.
  3. Don't take your partner's feelings personally. They are his or her feelings and don't necessarily match your own. Compassion means accepting your partner's feelings for what they are. 
  4. Don't get defensive or feel attacked when your partner expresses feelings that concern you. They aren't necessarily meant to be criticism. Give your partner a safe space to express herself without your interrupting. There will be another time for you to say what is on your own mind. Sometimes it helps to ask, "Can I have a safe space right now? I need to talk about something that bothers me."
  5. Use reflective listening, a technique that makes the other person feel understood and cared for. When you say "I understand that you are hurting right now," or "I hear that this is a difficult time for you," your partner will be encouraged to tell you more about the problem. If you say, "I can't understand why you feel that way," or "that doesn't make sense to me," your partner will shut down.
  6. Offer a sympathetic ear if your partner is hurting, but not pity. Pity can feel patronizing, whereas genuine concern does not.

I often give couples a five minute homework assignment to practice compassionate listening. Partner A says one positive thing about partner B. For example, "I appreciate that great dinner you cooked" or "You're so good about helping the kids with homework." Then partner A  says one negative thing. For example, "I wish you would help more with cleaning up" or "I wish you would give the kids a bath and help them brush their teeth in the evening." While partner A is speaking, partner B says nothing and simply listens. Then Partner B says one positive thing and one negative thing while partner A listens. There is no conversation about what was said. 

This little exercise allows the little annoyances of daily life together to be expressed slowly so they don't pile up to form a wall between a couple. Using "I statements" like "I wish" or "I would appreciate if you" can make annoyances feel less like attacks or criticism.