The following is a mental conversation that I have with myself to illustrate the skill of listening in relationships:
Close your mouth and really listen. Look at them. Stop thinking about how they are wrong and their argument is flawed. Don’t respond with the onslaught of negative thoughts scrolling through your brain. Just listen.
Then paraphrase what they just said. Repeat what they said in your own words. For example, if they just said:
“I feel like you don’t care about keeping the house clean.”
Ugh. You might be thinking: “What?!? Oh course I do! I cleaned the entire kitchen yesterday while you sat on your butt watching youtube.”
Stop. Don’t say that. Don’t give your side of the story just yet. Don’t attack them. Simply focus on what your spouse is saying and feeling. So paraphrase what they just said. Like this:
“So it sounds like you feel frustrated because you feel like I don’t care about cleaning the house. Is that right?”
Good. Now they feel like you understand. Let them talk and explain themselves some more. Perhaps you can ask them: “Why do you feel that way?”
Keep paraphrasing what they say.
Repeat these steps: 1) Listen, 2) Paraphrase what they say and 3) ask for clarification.
Keep letting them talk (in short bursts so you can paraphrase) until you thoroughly understand their side of the argument.
This skill is called active listening or reflective listening (1). It works with spouses, dating partners, business colleagues, children, friends…anyone! Whenever the understanding and communication is breaking down in your relationships, try this. It works.
Anyone who knows a different language realizes how the words you say may not be interpreted the same way you meant them. So paraphrasing and asking for clarification on difficult issues can actually solve a lot of fights on its own.
And when you are done listening and you really understand what your spouse is feeling, what do you do when it is your turn to talk? How do you express your ideas without being offensive?
See the next article on “How to Share a concern without Starting a Verbal Fist fight”.
(1) Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.