Listening to another person for any length of time is not easy. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we’d rather be listened to and understood than to listen to our mates. I want my husband to be riveted to my concerns about my day, but when he wants to offload the stresses of his, my attention seems to wander. Why is listening so hard?
First, we can easily get distracted. Life is full and our minds are busy. Men’s brains tend to compartmentalize. When they are focused on one thing, they have difficulty shifting to a space where they are attentive and available verbally. As multitaskers, women are used to having their attention in many places at once. They too have difficulty narrowing their focus to be fully attentive to their husbands’ concerns.
Secondly, we are selfish. Most of us are more invested in having our mate agree with us or hear us out than listening carefully to them. We value being understood more than understanding our mates. We don’t want to hear anything that goes against our position or side of the story. Also, while angry with our mate, we may selfishly refuse to listen to their position as a form of protest or punishment.
Thirdly, we have our own filters. We are oblivious to the fact that the messages our mates are sending and what we’re hearing can be very different. That’s because we filter what our mate says based on our own experiences, beliefs and perspectives. We fail to listen well because we attach meaning to what our mate is saying based on our own filters and we react to them as if our interpretation is accurate. As a result, our mate feels unheard.
Finally, listening is hard work. It takes setting ourselves aside for the time being and really focusing on the feelings, thoughts, and concerns of our mate. It requires effort and intentionality. Though difficult, listening (more than anything else) communicates respect, care and love. Respect for your mate’s unique experience, caring for him above yourself in that moment, and love that says “you are important to me and I want to take the time to hear you.”
So how do we listen well to our mate in a way that communicates love and facilitates understanding? Here is a checklist that you might find helpful:
- Prepare yourself to listen. You may have some apprehension about having a discussion on a particular area of conflict. Check for any anxiety, anger or resentment that may interfere with your ability to be curious about your mate. These emotions serve to protect and defend you. If you detect any of these protectors, invite them to step back.
- Invite your mate to share his thoughts and feelings with you. Be receptive and show him you’re available by your eye contact, body language and demeanor.
- Check out your assumptions. We all have filters through which we listen to others. These filters cause us to assume and attach certain meanings to what other people are saying. Before you jump to a conclusion, ask your mate to explain his intended meaning. Don’t assume you can read his mind. Have the humility to recognize that you have filters.
- Demonstrate respect by allowing your mate to speak from their perspective. Allow for differences. Coach yourself to listen with the sole intention of understanding your partner’s world. If they says something about you that hurts your feelings, remember it is not necessarily the truth about you but their perspective.
- Respond to your mate’s sharing by periodically reflecting back to him what you heard him say. This will allow you to clarify what you’ve heard. It also assures your mate that you are hearing him clearly. Don’t interpret or put your spin on what he said. Ask if you got it right. If not, be open to the clarification.
- Be present. If you’re too tired or preoccupied when your mate wants to talk, set a time soon thereafter when she may have your undivided attention. Remove any distractions—turn off the television, computer, cell phones. If you have children, choose a time when you will most likely not be interrupted.
Listening attentively to your mate is a gift you give him that reaps great rewards for both of you. It tells your spouse that he is important to you and you value his thoughts and feelings. Listening is like the oil that keeps your car running smoothly. Without it, and the steady lubrication it provides, the engine will sputter and die.
(Excerpt from Making Love Last: Divorce-Proofing Your Young Marriage)