- In our hectic and distracting world, it's all too easy for us to tune out others or only half listen.
- Research has shown that connections are enhanced by "turning towards": listening with full attention.
- The keys are making this a goal at the start, tempering your own emotions, adding to what the other is saying.
My parents-in-law are sitting in my living room, morning coffee in hand, both reading their books.
“So,” my father-in-law says, “it says here that the blue oyster we get at the market is one of the best-rated oysters in all taste competitions.”
My mother-in-law puts down her book and looks at him. “That’s so interesting, and I’m not surprised. And the article I’m reading says that we can try roasting our cauliflower to save calories and bring out the flavor.”
“Good idea,” says my father-in-law, "let's try it."
This is the perfect conversation, and snippets like this have served them well over their 60+ years of marriage. What they are doing is what John Gottman, in his research on couples, labeled “turning towards.” This is not about having serious discussions to solve problems or managing arguments but how to best treat and engage with those we care about in everyday life. Turning towards is about listening, real listening, with full attention and without defensiveness or one-upmanship, a simple give-and-take. It is the foundation of intimacy and connection.
Too often today, we tune out rather than turn towards. We look at our phones at dinner or under the table, or at best, half-listen. In place of eye contact, we yell across the house something that the other person only half hears, if they hear it at all. And then we wonder why we feel like we’re merely passing in the night or feel lonely within our closest relationships.
With so much of our lives running on habits and autopilot behaviors, changing the emotional climate, making these connections can be easier said than done. Here are tips to help you turn towards rather than tune out.
Put away the distractions.
Shut down the computer or deliberately turn away from it. Put your phone where you can’t see it so you’re not tempted to peek; silence it so you’re not triggered to respond. This lets the other person know you’re fully engaged.
Make sure you’re able to listen. If not, provide a timeframe.
If you are in the middle of doing something—making dinner, engrossed in something you’re reading, solving a problem at work—say so. "Sorry, I want to hear what you have to say, but I’m in the middle of something right now." "Give me ten minutes," or "I’ll come find you when I'm done."
Dampen your tendency to offer solutions, get defensive, and tune out.
This is obviously the hardest part. Listening is difficult because it is solely about listening, not talking. Research has consistently shown that women tend to use talking as a way of connecting, processing, and sharing, while men are more wired to focus on problem-solving, which can lead to mansplaining and interrupting—good intentions, perhaps, but bad results.
To break your old patterns, practice entering the conversation mindfully—telling yourself at the start that your goal is to just listen, not fix or tune out. Next, you want to track your emotions: whether you’re bored, annoyed, or have the urge to correct or pile on.
Once a conversation gets emotional, your amygdala, your emotional center, fires up, and you get tunnel vision—you want to get the other person to understand what you are saying—so you start pushing back with facts to get the story straight. A waste of time—the topic is no longer on the table, the other person can’t process what you’re saying, and anything you say at this point only makes things worse.
Let the person know if you’re having trouble tracking what they're saying.
If you’re getting lost in what the other person is saying or feeling overwhelmed by too much information, resist the urge to shut down or look for your phone or computer, but speak up. "Hold up a minute, I didn’t catch what you were just saying." Or, just ask a question. Turning towards is about staying engaged, and you’re allowed to gently steer the conversation so you can.
Now, it’s your turn.
Turning towards is a verbal dance, one in which partners positively respond to each other, ideally building on what the other just said. It's a "yes, and" dance rather than a "yes, but" one. You have your turn to contribute to the conversation, not take over, but to add. Together, you are creating an experience where you both feel heard, an experience likely to facilitate feelings of intimacy and connection.
This small tweak in your relationship can make a big difference in the overall climate of your relationship. Give it a try.