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Radical Listening: The Key to Real Intimacy

Want to feel closer to your partner? Practice listening in a brand new way.

The key to deep intimacy in relationship is listening, but listening in a radically new way.

Most of us, when listening, are doing one of two things and sometimes both. First, we are scanning for danger: is there something that our partner is expressing that conflicts with what we experience or believe. If so, then we think that our own experience or belief is threatened, as is the relationship itself. We are taught that our partner’s truth must align with our own—or else someone’s truth and thus someone must be wrong.

We listen with the word “but” (not "and") as our guide. If our partner shares an experience or thought that is different from our own, we connect the two experiences with the word “but” which implies that the experience on one side or the other is invalid, rejected, and thus unworthy of kindness or curiosity.

If we are not scanning our partner’s words for danger, we are figuring out the problem we need to fix—what we need to do about what is being shared rather than listening to what is actually being shared. Having to fix our partner’s experience then prevents being truly with our partner, knowing them through understanding what they are living, unfixed.

The path to deep intimacy is to shift our whole way of listening so that “and” replaces “but” as our way of connecting differing experiences and truths. In order to create true intimacy, we must trust that our experience and our partner’s need not be one and the same nor even similar, and can in fact coexist peacefully even when radically different. You experience it this way and I experience it that way. Both are true and both are deserving of kindness and attention.

In most relationships, only half truths are told and we feel only partially known. Too much of what we experience about the other, the relationship or just life in general feels threatening to the safety of the union. We don’t trust that we can be fully honest and still loved, and, that the relationship can include all the differing truths that coexist, and still remain intact. And so we hide our truths, tuck them away inside ourselves, protect ourselves from being fully known, protect the relationship from its inconsistencies, all of which is the death knoll for intimacy.

In order to feel genuinely close with our partner, we must feel genuinely known. We must feel safe to express how we experience ourselves, each other, the relationship, and our lives. In order to create this intimacy, we must learn to listen to each other with true curiosity, with the goal of understanding and caring about our partner’s experience regardless of whether we like, agree with, or even fully understand its content.

Real intimacy is created when we offer each other the space and respect to have different and equally true experiences of life. We feel deeply in union when we can understand and accept what is true for our partner, regardless of whether we share that truth. When our experience is welcome and offered the freedom to be heard as it is, without agreement, we feel truly known, which is intimacy in action.

More from Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.
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