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Try the No. 1 Listening Challenge for Couples

How the "ultimate listening experiment" changes everything.

It's easy to be a good listener if your partner is telling you how funny, and smart, and good-looking you are. But often we don't want to hear what our partner wants to tell us or we literally can't stand to hear them bringing up the same worry, concern or criticism again and again. What should you do when you are sick of hearing your partner’s repetitive worry or complaint about a particular subject?

The answer is as simple as the challenge is daunting: Surprise your partner by inviting the very conversation you most dread.

You might think that you’ll be opening the floodgates by asking your partner about something they're already over-focused on, whether it’s your unavailability after dinner or her worry about your son’s bad grades. In fact, the opposite is true. Your partner will feel less intense and thus less obsessed and more joyful if you invite them to tell you everything, and you are fully present to hear it.

What does this “ultimate listening experiment” look like?

Some years back, I was having a hard time with both the health and appearance aspects of aging, having accumulated what I felt was more than my fair share. My husband, Steve, tired of hearing the same thing over and over, and his attention span shrank. He’d say things like, “You keep going over and over the same thing. It’s not helping you and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” Or, he’d point out how much I had to be grateful for, how far worse off others were, how someday a truly terrible thing would happen to me or him or someone in the family, so why was I wasting the good life I had now.

All true of course. But I’m allergic to the message, “It is what it is, it can’t be fixed, so let’s move on.” Nor is it generally a good idea in marriage to rule a subject off-limits, at least not permanently. Men often tell me, “I’m not going to ask her about that!”—that being the criticism they can’t stand hearing or the worry they feel their partner is blowing out of proportion. They don’t realize that if their partner feels muzzled, or not truly heard, she’ll become more obsessed.

I don’t know what inspired Steve, but one evening he said, “I want us to have a glass of wine in the living room after dinner and I want you to tell me all about the changes you’re going through physically and how you feel about them. I want to hear every single detail and I just want to listen.” He suggested I start with the top of my head down to the bottom of my feet, and tell him everything. He listened with great care, and asked questions to elicit more details. He made no move to end the conversation. When I finally stopped talking, he asked, “Is there more you haven’t told me?”

What Steve didn’t do was as important as what he did. He didn’t interrupt or offer advice, wisdom, reassurance, or messages of good cheer. He didn’t criticize, judge, or minimize my experience (“I think you’re over-reacting”). He didn’t answer or check his phone.

Try this ultimate listening experiment with your partner. Set up a meeting time to listen when you’re free of distraction and have good intentions. Consider where to talk. The bedroom or kitchen may not be as relaxing as talking in the living room or an outdoor setting. Let your partner know in advance that you are there to learn everything about what’s they're upset or angry about. Ask if you really “got it.”

We may believe that what we say and how we say it, has a greater influence on our partner than how we listen. In fact, improving how we listen is fundamental to knowing our partner and being known, resolving conflict, and improving the chances that our partner will listen more openly to what we have to say. For extra credit, try the ultimate listening experiment with your parent, your child, or any key person in your life.