Recently I was working with a couple — let’s call them Andrew and Harvey — who were trying to come up with their budget for the next several months. Andrew shared with Harvey that he was feeling anxious about the lack of funds in their savings account. Harvey responded by saying that if they did a little more saving each month, their account would be in a good place by the end of the year. That, Harvey said, would help alleviate Andrew’s anxiety.
“You seriously never listen to me, do you?” Andrew responded.
Harvey, mouth agape, sat still. It was clear he was confused. “What do you mean, I don’t listen to you?” he asked, “I clearly just listened to you and gave you a solution.”
“I didn’t want your solutions,” Andrew said. “I wanted you to just hear me out and care about how I feel.”
Chances are you can relate to this conversation. Perhaps you’ve been in Andrew’s shoes — sharing something important and then feeling completely unheard by the response. Or, maybe you relate to Harvey — you’ve truly listened to your partner and offered good intentioned solutions hoping to lighten their load only to have them say they don’t believe you listened at all.
Left unaddressed, such arguments can derail relationships. I’ve worked with many, many couples who’ve stopped sharing stressful information with each other because they believe their partner isn’t listening.
Listening is complex because being a successful listener is a subjective act, one dependent on the experience of both parties in the conversation — the sharer and the receiver. The sharer is responsible for being clear on what they want and then must utilize their communication skills to ensure they’re sharing a message in a way that can easily be understood. The receiver has to be curious enough about what the sharer actually needs when it comes to listening, and they have to practice enough self-awareness to actually be able to offer it.
So how do you prevent “you’re not listening to me!” arguments without icing your partner out? And what do you do if you’re often frustrated with how your partner listens? Here are some steps to take.
How Does Listening Feel In Your Relationship?
Here’s something important to remember: The “You’re not listening to me!” argument tends to be more accurate when thought of as: “You’re not listening to me the way I want you to.” Someone might not, for example, feel heard or validated if the listener immediately races towards a solution.
It’s important, then, to work on how listening “feels” in your relationship. I encourage couples to reflect on what is and isn’t working when it comes to feeling listened to in your relationship and then identify what it is you believe about sharing emotions and difficulties in general.
First, start by reflecting on these prompts together:
- “A time I felt very listened to by you was…”
- “What I remember you doing in that conversation was… “ “And I liked that because…”
- “I have noticed that I tend to prefer empathy/solutions (choose one or share a mix) when I am feeling upset or sharing something important.”
- “I have noticed it’s easier for me to give empathy/solutions (choose one) when I am listening to someone sharing something important.”
- “If I could do one thing to improve our communication together, what would it be? How could I generally be a better listener for you?”
Next, explore “meta-emotions.” Meta-emotions are the beliefs we have about feelings. Essentially, they’re how we feel about feelings. Some believe that emotions are very helpful, even the difficult ones. We call these people “emotion coaches.” For them, it feels good to share feelings and it’s enough to just be heard. Others don’t find sharing emotions to be particularly helpful. They think the point of sharing a difficulty is to receive a solution to get out of it. These people are known as “solution coaches.”
When you have a solution coach and an emotion coach in the same relationship, listening might not feel organic. (And don’t worry. Most couples tend to match up this way!) In fact, you might often say to each other, “you never listen to me!”
An emotion coach and a solution coach can be a wonderful match, as long as you’re willing to give the other person what they need when it comes to listening.
For example, if you’re a solution coach and your partner is an emotion coach, they are going to want you to help them talk about their feelings. And, if you’re an emotion coach and your partner is a solutions coach, they are going to feel most understood when you’re helping them problem solve and most valuable when you respect their ideas and solutions. Talk together about your own beliefs about emotions and how that plays out within your listening.
6 Ways To Improve Your Communication
In the premarital program I designed for my premarital counseling service OURS, one of the most important skills couples learn is how to be great communicators with each other. This requires a series of simple shifts that help increase the likelihood of feeling listened to.
Here are a few:
1. Ask for consent
Before you start talking about something important, ask the other person if they have the time/space/energy to have the conversation. It works wonders to say something as simple as “Hey, I’d love to chat about what’s going on with our budget. Is now a good time?” People tend to cooperate and be more present in conversations where they consented to being there.
2. Be clear on what you want
People usually want one of two things from a listener — empathy or solutions. When you are sharing something with your partner, tell them what you want upfront. Don’t make them guess. You might say something like “I am having a lot of anxiety about money, I really just want a listening ear…solutions will feel overwhelming to me right now.”
3. Stay present in the room
That means avoiding the big three — distractions, assumptions, and the inner monologue. To avoid distractions, make sure that your cell phone is away and that it’s a calm moment. Also, check in with yourself about any internal distractions. To avoid assumptions, ask questions. And to get out of the inner monologue, catch yourself when you’ve been “stuck in your mind” for too long while your partner is talking.
4. Be curious
By being present, you’re able to be curious. If you’re the listener, stay open to possibilities — the possibility that you are misunderstanding, the possibility that you are going to hear something new, and the possibility that you might need to ask more questions.
5. Ask what the speaker needs
Sometimes we do too much work by trying to figure out exactly what the other person wants when it comes to listening. If you’re not sure, just ask “do you just want to vent, or do you want to hear some ideas?”
It’s very common to butt heads about feeling heard in a relationship. By learning how your partner wants to be listened to and making some simple shifts in how you listen, you’ll be more open and kick arguments of this kind to the curb. Yes, it requires work and a shift in how you communicate, but in terms of the alternative — getting so frustrated with one another’s listening style that you stop including them in your world — it’s well worth the effort.