While working with couples in my marriage therapy practice I’ve recently heard a number of guys claim they are very good listeners, which makes the wives burst out in laughter. It’s really great these husbands can make their partners laugh, but unfortunately, that wasn’t their goal, which means, according to their partners, they must suck at listening. Whenever I hear someone claim to be a good listener I have an Aladdin moment. In the Disney cartoon the King says “The one thing I pride myself on, Jafar, is I’m an excellent judge of character,” which leads to Iago saying, “An excellent judge; yeah, sure… not!” Of course, instead of ‘judge of character’ what I hear is “An excellent listener; yeah, sure… not!” I especially like this because it’s a 90s movie with an 80s reference by saying ‘not’, which means I get to be out of date with two different decades being represented. That’s pretty impressive; you’re welcome. When it comes to hearing the words their partner is saying I’m sure these guys are really good, but that doesn’t make you a good listener. In fact, if you’re a couple in marriage therapy, there’s a 99% chance both of your listening abilities to each other is a giant suckfest. I know I’m not perfect at listening (although you’d have to hope I’m good at it when I’m a therapist), but people in marriage therapy typically make most of these five key mistakes when listening to their partner:
- They assume the other person is trying to hurt them: This leads to even innocent comments being taken as an insult and experiencing unnecessary hurt. If you’re not in a fight when people say things they don’t mean, you should never assume your spouse is trying to hurt you.
- They are listening for words they can use to throw back in the partner’s face: This is frustrating because it has an ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ and ‘me against you’ feel. It’s like verbal dodgeball: You dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge (another 90s movie reference) in order to avoid the words you don’t want to hear and then grab what you can to hurl back at the person in hopes to knock them out.
- They correct, negatively question, demand an example, or disagree with the other person: All of these make the other person feel put down like you think they’re stupid. Correcting a detail gets people’s backs up as does a question like: “Why would you think that?” Even a calm voice asking “What do you mean?” feels negative in a heated conversation. You need to validate the other person before you make a point or they’ll feel put down. This is why demanding an example frustrates the other person; they just want their feelings validated, and not to be interrogated.
- They take things personally: Yes, it’s natural to take digs and nasty words from our spouse personally, but we shouldn’t if we want to be a good listener. We can either ignore the comments or clarify what we think we heard, but only in a non retaliating way. If you’re listening, it’s not about you.
- They defend themselves: When people are angry, they don’t care why you did something; they want you to care they’re upset. Sure, when someone tries to punch us we need to block it to protect ourselves, but as soon as we swing back we are now in a fight, which typically escalates the violence unless we hit the other person so hard we knock him or her to the ground, but that leads to its own problems. The same happens when we try to explain what we did. Ultimately, the best way to block harsh words is to not “hear” them and instead try to consider what’s underneath the words. Don’t get caught on the surface of a fight; look beyond the surface to see what’s really going on. Typically the root is ‘I don’t feel safe or loved’. Address this and you avoid a fight.
Tip: When a spouse is attacking, the real message is usually “I’m hurt and trying to express it. Please care.” Thus, the worst thing we can do is not let them express it.
So what is a good listener? Simply put: A good listener is someone who helps the other person feel heard and have his or her feelings validated. It’s about hearing more than just hearing words; it’s about hearing what the person is actually trying to say. And this is the challenge for most men. Go beyond the words to understand what’s behind them. Your partner isn’t crazy; they’re just trying to express their hurt.
To be continued.
This week may you understand what’s under the words.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people