A common lament of husbands and some wives is “I don’t know what to do when my partner asks me to listen. Do I just sit there, doing nothing?” While it might seem that listening should be natural (hey, we all have ears, right?), it’s not. Good listening is a skill that needs attention and practice to develop. The following information about three levels of listening might help you understand why good listening can be difficult, and what you can do to improve your listening.
Our listening is most compromised when we have been emotionally hijacked and are essentially listening through the lens of threat response. When we experience strong uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, anger, or embarrassment, humans essentially stop listening and start reacting. We are also likely to take one of the threat response avenues – fight, flight, or freeze.
What can you do if your partner wants you to listen, and you have just been hijacked by what was said? The best thing would be to tell your partner that being able to listen is important to you, and ask her or him to hold on a moment until you can be truly present. Then you can take a few deep breaths until your strong emotions subside and you feel your body relax a little. You then have a much better chance of actually hearing what is being said.
Once we are able to set our threat response aside, the next level of listening is to be able to accurately track what your partner is saying. This sounds deceptively easy. However, one of the most common thing I hear couples arguing about is who said what! Paying attention to the words the other person is using, and being careful to not place your own meaning or interpretation on what was said is challenging. Also, you may find yourself narrowly focusing on one part of what was said, without hearing everything that is being said.
One way to see if you heard accurately is to check your understanding. Using your own words, try summarizing back the key points that you heard. For example, if your wife is venting about a hard time she had at work today, you might try something like, “Wow, sounds like your boss was really tough on you today…and that co-worker didn’t make it any easier, did he?” If you are close, she will know you heard her. If you get it wrong, she’ll correct you and you can try again. But either way, she’ll know you’re listening.
Empathic listening is the top level of listening. It’s also the hardest to accomplish, because empathic listening requires setting your own needs, thoughts, and feelings aside, and attempting to fully put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Empathic listening doesn’t require you to agree, but it does require you to attempt to take your partner’s perspective and gain an emotional understanding of their position. In this level of listening, you are attempting to go beyond what your partner is saying to understand the implicit purpose, meanings and feelings that are behind their speech.
One way to achieve empathic is to imagine yourself in your partner’s situation, and see if there are parts you can align with, where you might feel the same way. If you can’t quite understand or see things the same way, you can still note and reflect your partner’s response to the situation (e.g., I can see that really is upsetting for you.)
In this level of listening, if you have difficulty suspending your feelings and judgments, you’ll find yourself interrupting, giving unsolicited advice (this is done to address your own discomfort), or challenging your partner’s viewpoint (e.g., You shouldn’t be so angry.) If that happens, just notice it and attempt to return to your partner’s point of view.