Being a great listener is an essential quality in a good spouse. Chances are, you’re already pretty good at it. You know the basics: Don’t interrupt. Don’t offer unsolicited advice. Don’t try to fix stuff if your partner hasn’t asked you specifically for advice on fixing stuff.
But the basics only get you so far. There are ways to improve and your partner deserves more because of course they do. Yes, improving your listening skills takes time and energy, but it’s worth it for the health of your relationship. Besides, honing the skill will help you gain a better understanding of your spouse — and, you know, avoid arguments that come as a result of not listening. And isn’t that the goal? Here’s how to step up your game.
1. No, You Don’t Have To Be A Great Listener All Of The Time
You can interrupt. You can half listen. You can not listen, says Michael Nichols, professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary and author of The Lost Art of Listening. Not all conversations are the Super Bowl. They’re not even division rivalry games.
But you’re smart enough to sense when it matters. Your partner might make it easy by saying, “There’s something that’s been on my mind” or even easier with, “I need to talk.” Then you know it’s game time.
2. It’s Okay To Ask For A Moment.
Even though your spouse needs to talk, you know when you’re at. It’s within your rights to say, “I want to completely be there for you but can we do it in 20 minutes?” You’ve done all the good things — affirmed, validated, showed consideration, says Debra Roberts, a licensed social worker and author of The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Diffuse and Build Healthier Relationships. And it’s to your benefit. You need to be fully invested in listening, and, if you can’t be, it will be obvious, which will necessitate a different conversation about your inability to be present.
Most likely, the answer to a delay will be yes, and if it is, your job is to follow up and get back in 20 minutes, as you said you would, or it will feel like a blow-off, says Nancy Levin McGrath, a couples therapist in Brookline, Massachusetts. If the answer is no, then you’ll know that it must be important and the listening will commence right now.
But even then, you can set expectations. Ask up top if your spouse needs you to give advice or just listen. It shows gives your partner control and locks you into the right headspace. Even if you don’t ask at the outset, you can during. At a pause – and only at a pause – if you’re not sure what your partner wants, just ask, “What would help you most right now?” You’re reiterating your support and that your spouse’s agenda is all that matters, Roberts says.
3. Do What You Can To Not Get Defensive
When a person feels comfortable talking, that person starts opening up, and the topic could well be you. The information might not be positive. Take it. If your shoulders start to tighten and your face gets red, resist the urge to defend. Instead, ask, “Can you explain that a little more?” You don’t want to prematurely pop off, because, per Levin McGrath, “you don’t have enough information to decide if you’re being criticized.”
At the very least, asking a question slows down the pace so you can adjust to what’s being said, Robert says. But if all of that doesn’t work and you’re getting revved up, say so, and ask to take a 10-minute break. You might as well since you’ve already stopped listening. But again, that break better be 10 minutes. And you should re-engage the conversation.
4. You Don’t Need To Find The Best Words
Because there are none. Remember, though, listening is about your partner, not about showing how awesomely insightful you are, Nichols says. But there are good things to say – silence comes off as disinterest – and they’re all usually three words maximum with an exclamation point at the end, such as, “That sucks,” “Oh man,” “What a dick.” Your first job is to offer full-on support, not offering anyone else’s perspective to consider, Levin McGrath says. Echoing the feelings makes your partner feel like you’re right there in that moment, which is exactly the goal.
5. Understand That Listening Takes Effort
The following doesn’t necessarily make things easier, but it’s good to keep in mind. Listening is a lot like parenting. It takes effort. It doesn’t offer a lot of credit. It’s not about you. “That’s why most of us aren’t very good about it,” Nichols says. But it’s worth doing. For pure practicality, your spouse has a problem. It’s going to be there regardless, and it will simmer and come out at a later, less convenient time with resentment without attention.
But here’s the bigger thing. You’re going to have something bugging you at some point and will need to talk. It’s much easier for someone to invest the time and be genuinely interested in what you have to say when you’ve already done the same. It’s really pretty simple. “For people you care about, you want to give that to them,” Nichols says.
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