"So, what's the problem?" I ask new couples.
And almost every one who comes to see me says, "Communication."
Communication is one of those words that blur before the eyes; it's too broad, too unspecific. So, I ask for more details. And what I often find is that couples are communicating just fine; in fact, they are usually overcommunicating. Texting angry messages, shouting at each other in the kitchen, staying up until 3 am talking and talking and talking in circles.
Here's what I think is the real problem: not listening.
To listen well is an art and a learned skill. Some people naturally listen well, but most of us don't. When someone is talking, we may get distracted by things around us or chatter inside of us. We may be priming ourselves with an even better anecdote or thinking that this person really is wrong and building a case inside of us to prove it. It takes practice--sometimes years-- to sit still, quiet our minds and truly hear someone else.
Brenda Uehland, in her essay, "Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening," writes wonderfully about the power of listening (nearly 100 years ago):
I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don't listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all--which is so important, too--to those we do not love...But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.
In the moment we are fighting with our partner or spouse or parent or child, we don't love them. And that is the time we need to listen the most. Because in that moment of desperate, anxious tension, that person becomes our opponent--and we want to win the war. Our adrenaline is up, our pre-frontal cortex is overtaken by our limbic system, all of our unresolved wounds come to the fore--and we fight for a sort of survival. It becomes nigh impossible to listen in that moment--and it is imperative that we do so.
For just as the tragedy of parents and children is not listening, so it is of husbands and wives. If they disagree they begin to shout louder and louder--if not out loud, at least inwardly--hanging fiercely and blindly onto their own ideas, instead of listening and becoming quieter and more comprehending.
Try this next time you are in the middle of an ordinary discussion with your partner.. Do not try this during a fight - that's like trying to train a puppy at a crowded dog park. (You'll get better and better at this the more you practice, and one day you'll find yourself doing this in the heat of a fight. That will be gold medal time!)
- While the person is talking, breathe slowly and feel your breath
- Look at him/her, watch expression and body language and the eyes
- Note any chatter inside you: are you being defensive? Can't wait to say something? Slow it down and hear with your curious ear, not your defensive ear.
- Ask yourself: What is this person experiencing? What story did they take away from what happened or what they heard/felt/thought? What's the emotion underneath the story?
- Now, ask a question--a curious, I-really-want-to-know question.
Here's what I think will happen: you'll feel more connected to that person and you'll feel more calm and relaxed. You may even notice that you don't even need to say anything, but are just happy to be completely and utterly present. That's listening.
When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life...When we listen to people there is an alternating current that recharges us so we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created...