The Lost Art of Listening

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

One of the most common complaints I hear from couples is the inability that they have to communicate effectively with each other. By the time they come into therapy, they are both exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally in the relationship and are at a loss of how to get the other partner to understand them. When partners stop listening to each other, the relationship slowly starts to diminish. However, before we go further, lets talk about the differences between hearing someone and listening to someone. Listening is more than just hearing what people say. I can hear my wife talk to me about her day and get every word she is saying but if I am playing on my phone while she is doing this she will most likely reply, “Are you listening to me!” Of course my natural reply would be, “I heard everything you said!” However, what did she really want from me?……… She wanted more than just hearing her words, she needed me to help her to feel I cared about her day and what she was going through.  Listening to our partners is not about agreeing with them! It is about trying to show empathy towards their situations and what they are going through. It is about trying to put ourselves in their shoes and walk in them a bit.

By the time couples get to therapy, the listening stops and the defensiveness starts. They had stopped listening to each other long ago in their relationship and have come to a point where they just want to be heard by their partner. So you can imagine what this looks like. The most common example of this to me in therapy happens while one partner is talking to other. A lot of the time, the latter is trying to think about the next thing to say to him or her trying to win the war of words.

At this point (the point where most conversations end up in an argument), many couples contemplate divorce believing that they will find somebody better who will understand and listen to their needs. While this usually happens initially at the beginning of relationships, most patterns get repeated in the long-term no matter how many relationship changes there are.

One of my favorite authors, Michael P. Nichols, PhD, wrote a book called, The Lost Art of Listening. In here he stated, “A relationship is not a thing, not a static state; it is a process of mutual influence. A relationship isn’t something you have; it’s something you do. Couples who learn to listen to each other–with understanding and tolerance–often find that they don’t need to change each other. The impulse to change things, to make them better, is a natural and largely constructive one. But anyone who thinks of marriage as an infinitely improvable arrangement is making a mistake. The ideal of perfectibility breeds frustration. Many problems can be solved, but the problem of living with another person who doesn’t always see things the way you do isn’t one of them. Sometimes marriage isn’t about resolving differences but learning to live together with them” (p. 207).

What do I do then?

If you feel you are in a relationship where you are not being understood, ask yourself, “Does my partner feel understood by me? Does her or she feel I care about their opinions?” When my wife and I are talking about something together, I often don’t agree with how she sees things. However, I recognize that her feelings and opinions are just as important as mine and who am I to say that I am the all-knowing authority on the subject! I have learned in my relationship and with my therapeutic experience that expecting your partner to align with your way of viewing the world will mostly likely leave you alone in that world. My advice is to resist the urge to try and change your partner and focus your efforts on listening to them. Doing this will likely lead to a better and healthier relationship. I have often found that by doing this and helping your partner feel cared about by you, he or she will most likely be in a place to listen and understand you.

If you are interested in finding out more information on the book, The Lost Art of Listening, please visit the resources tab at the top of the page.

3 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Listening

  1. Nowell Whittaker says:

    How can I be a good listener if my wife won’t talk? I guess the question is how can I foster an environment that would allow her to open up, without causing her to feel pressured to do so? You have advised us to talk of our relationship only with you, but even in that environment anxiety exists and she bottles up and becomes defensive before anyone says a word.

    • kylemreid says:

      You asked, “How can I be a good listener if my wife won’t talk?” My question for you is during those times when she is open about how she is feeling, are you able to foster a safe environment by listening with real intent to understand her? You can’t force her to talk to you but you can create a safe environment for her when she does talk by appearing non-defensive. Defensiveness can be very common with couples who struggle with communicating. The way to work around this is if she starts to come at you with hostility in one way or another you can ask yourself, What does she really need from me right now? Most of the time, I would say to let her say what she needs to say to allow her to purge her current emotions and then if you are able to manage your own anxiety during this time and show true empathy of what she is dealing with, you are most likely to find her willingness to hear what is going on with you at this time.

      • Nowell Whittaker says:

        I bought the book The Lost Art of Listening. Its a page turner and I have learned a lot about not just listening, but communicating. Now to put it in practice! Thanks for sharing.

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