Friday, November 4, 2011

Listen Up

Most of our parents did a pretty good job of teaching us how to talk but few did as well at helping us learn how to listen, a skill that most of us struggle with.  Some of this comes from when our parents tell us to listen to them they really mean obey, they aren't just as happy if we were to say, "Father, I know you worked hard to provide the money for my hard working mother to purchase and prepare these brussel sprouts, and that your desire is that I eat them all.  I regret to inform you, however, that I have chosen not to eat them, but to wait for the ice cream later."  We sort of grow up believing that listening automatically implies obedience, and often this is poison in our other relationships, because when people feel they are not being heard they tend to either get louder or repeat themselves - or both.  It happens all the time in marriage counseling that a spouse says to me something like, "My husband just never listens to me.  I've tried talking nicely, yelling, repeating myself, and nothing gets through!"  I then ask the other spouse what it is that their partner is trying to get them to hear and they almost always can parrot back exactly what it is - they have heard what was being said. Then a foreign concept is introduced where you have to help a person understand that just because someone hears what you are saying, it doesn't mean they will agree with it or be willing to submit to your demands.

So then, how do we become better listeners, and help others understand that we are listening without just placating and agreeing to get them off of our back?  It first starts with reminding ourselves that core truth about marriage that 70% of what we are going to argue about over the course of our marriage are perpetual issues that will never be resolved, but still need to be discussed.  He will always be late, she will always have a lower sex drive, they will never be best friends with your dad, and they will never be able to hold onto cash in their pocket for more than a day, and no amount of deeply hearing your brilliant wisdom on life will change these things.  So most of our conversations about frustrations, disappointments, and hurts will best be handled by really hearing the other person's perspective, validating and empathizing with them, and reassuring them of your love and commitment, not fixing them so they never do it again.

The second thing we have to do is learn to temporarily shut off our self-centered brain long enough to truly put ourselves in our partner's world and experience long enough to get where they are coming from.  This requires two difficult tasks, shutting our mouths, and shutting down our internal conversation where we are fact-checking their statements, determining if we agree with them or not, and figuring out how to counter their obviously flawed viewpoint.  This takes metaphorical muscles inside our brains and wills that for most of us are extremely weak and atrophied.  We have to get to a point where we care at least as much about hearing the other person as we are about being heard.

Once we get those two things down it gets a lot easier and you can then just make sure you are internally hearing the content, perspective, and emotions behind what is being shared as well as externally reassuring our partner that we get those three things.  Mirroring or reflecting content is the first of the three and it is crucial to get before you can really do the other two, or else you will each be having two different independent conversations with each other.  Often we assume we know what our partner is saying or what they are REALLY trying to say rather than just working to hear exactly what they are actually saying.  Once you have the actual content you are less likely to remember each other having said different things down the road, "Remember last week when you said X?  No way, I said Y..."  The second part is to make sure you get their perspective by validating them, letting them know that even if you disagree or did not mean for your actions to be interpreted the way they have, that you can see how they view it that way from their point of view.  They aren't crazy or irrational, just rationally convinced of a different perspective.  Then you finally can make sure you reflect their emotions through empathizing with them, picking up on how the situation makes them feel and letting them know you understand.  If you assume it is possible to have a disagreement and don't feel you need to bully the other person into agreeing with your perspective, can shut up and focus wholly on the other person, and let them know you get the content, perspective, and emotion behind what they are saying then you are listening.  They will feel heard, be more likely to be OK with you having a different perspective, and actually curious to hear what it is, rather than just having the usual control battle about who will be heard.

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