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How to Talk to Be (Really!) Heard

Trade in your armor for mindfulness.

Key points

  • Life in relationships is a continuous balancing act of longing for contact and wanting safety.
  • Paradoxically, the things we do to feel safe actually make it less likely we’ll be heard and more likely we’ll be hurt.
  • Mindful awareness is the skill we need—both to be heard and to be safe.

All of us have stories to tell. The story of how much I like you and hope you’ll go out with me, the story of needing a night off from doing dishes, the story of why I’m so mad at you.

We want to tell our stories; but we don’t just want to tell, we want to be heard. As difficult as it is, at times, to tell the story, it’s even harder to be heard. And, then we discover, to our surprise and dismay, it can be hardest with the most important people in our lives.

If there’s something more important for relationships than learning to talk so that you will be heard, I’m not sure what it is.

Creator: SDI Productions | Credit: Getty Images
Creator: SDI Productions | Credit: Getty Images

We Want To Be Heard—Not Hurt

Most of the things we do to protect ourselves, not surprisingly, actually make it less likely we will be heard and more likely we will be hurt, things like talking too much, or too fast, or too loud, or sounding as if we have all the answers. Imagine putting on a suit of armor and going in for a hug.

Meanwhile, we are often unaware of these defenses and of their effects on ourselves and our partner. When we are anxious and armored our perceptual abilities and cognitive processing are compromised. We literally hear less well, see less well and think less well. We’re inside a shell, cut off from important information and our ability to make use of it. We can end up feeling mystified with no idea of how we’re behaving or why we’re not being heard.

The Alternative To Armor: Mindful Awareness

What's the alternative to armoring, both for connection and safety? Tuning in. Fully aware of what’s going on, with yourself and your partner, you regain the ability to talk in ways that help your partner to hear you. This ability to be aware in each unfolding moment is something we call mindfulness. So how does this help us to be heard and to feel safer?

We are most at risk when the other person feels unsafe. The dance goes something like this. You’re feeling nervous about telling your story. Without mindfulness, you fail to notice that your voice is becoming louder and you’re speaking faster. The effect of this on your partner is to make them feel nervous, on edge, unsafe. So, they start to shut down, armor up, have more trouble hearing and processing. Without mindful awareness, you fail to hear your own voice and you fail to notice the effect it’s having. You then fail to notice that, as they shut down, you actually feel less safe than ever, so you continue to talk loud and long—the firehose effect. Pretty soon, you find yourself in exactly the pickle you hoped to avoid: feeling unheard, shut out, and misunderstood. Sound familiar?

Let’s replay this with less armor and more awareness. You want to tell your partner something important that may be hard for them to hear. You’re feeling nervous about telling your story. With mindfulness, you notice that you’re nervous. You pause a minute to take a few breaths. Maybe you say something like, “I’m nervous about this, but I really need to talk to you.” You start off slow, but, at some point, your voice becomes louder and you’re speaking faster. With mindfulness you notice your own voice, you observe your partner starting to get tense, closing down. You stop talking for a minute to collect yourself. You ask how they’re doing with the conversation. Maybe they say they’re trying to listen, but it would be easier if you’d slow down and maybe not talk so loud. You start again, this time slower and softer. You’ve course-corrected and are headed more in the direction of being heard—and understood, cared about, connected.

The next time you want to tell your story, lose the armor and use mindful awareness to guide you. Speak in ways that help your partner to feel safe and open, so that they can hear you. One story at a time, you can build a relationship of trust, intimacy, and the pleasure of being really heard.

More from Kathryn Ford M.D.
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