This couple's argument is headed for disaster. One communication skill alone could save their relationship. It's not just any listening; it is active listening.
What is Active Listening For?
Active listening is powerful enough to re-direct a heated argument into a calmer discussion about what really matters. It can get you away from endless disputing about details and beliefs. It will also move you away from accusations and insults, the most damaging parts of your argument.
At first you might dismiss this as silly, weak, being a doormat. So maybe, see it as an experiment. You will discover why active listening is practiced by experts, from counsellors to hostage negotiators.
Here is a step by step approach to make your partner feel, and I do mean feel, understood. They will start to have hope about working together on this problem with you instead of fighting about it. It will be hard to start though, because instead of telling your partner what they should do or say, you will temporarily suspend your opinion and facts and start this process:
- Decide that it's okay to pause defending yourself. Instead, become honestly curious about what might be behind your partner's accusation. Get ready for them to blurt out some hurtful statements, which you will let pass by for now. You only interested in getting to their deeper concerns and hopes.
Show that you are listening
- Start listening as if you are someone not involved in the conflict. Nod your head with interest, say something like "oh..." or "uh huh," with feeling so they can see that you are paying attention in some way.
Prove You Are Listening
- Never say "I understand." Instead, prove that you understand by repeating back something that you heard. This is called a reflection. You might rephrase what they just said (without their accusing tone) or you could just repeat something exactly while nodding your head to show that you get it. Also, prove that you are listening to the feelings with body language. If the person describes something sad, show that feeling as you reflect. If the person is shocked, show a bit of that feeling as you say, "...wow you were shocked about that!" That is called empathy.
Check if this is Working
- When you repeat something back to your partner, look at their face for some indication that you got the meaning right, or wrong. If you have got it right, you will see a nod of their head or some look on their face showing agreement. If you don't see that positive response, just listen a bit more and try again. Keep trying until they can see you are starting to recognize their point of view. This is where they start to feel listened to.
Ask a Question to Go Deeper
- Now you have a chance to find out how to build a bridge across the impasse. Ask one of these questions that will move the conversation to the real issue:
What makes you want to say that? (you may have to ask this a few times)
What matters to you about all this?
What is the risk if this goes the wrong way for you?
What are you feeling about this?
What are you hoping for?
Dont as "why" questions. Asking someome "why" encourages reason giving or rationalization. You want to go deeper than just reasons.
Read between The Lines
- As they answer your question, listen for deeper meaning
how they feel
what their hopes are
what their needs are
what they are worried about
Reflect some of the deeper meaning back as well. Showing that you understand their inner world builds connection. By now the argument has toned down and there is an opportunity to start working together on a solution for both of you.
Make a Wise Choice About Next Steps
- You can go in one of two directions here. Be wise about switching to your own point of view; you might want to delay that till later.
"I'm glad you told me about this. I need time to think about it"
"Can I tell you something about what this means to me?"
How Active Listening Changes the Relationship
If you do this, the big effect will be to cool the heated emotions. When a person feels understood, even a bit, they start to calm down. That means they might now be willing to care about your point of view. Read my article about the I-message to see you to share your own views.
You might also decide to leave the conversation at just listening and promise to come back later. "Let's talk again in the morning," is sometimes the best thing to say.
Dixon Zalit is a counsellor in Vernon BC, offering counselling for stress and anxiety, relationships, and other self-management topics.