“You never listen to me,” is a common complaint in relationships. When asked what people desire more than anything in their interpersonal interactions, most have indicated that they want to be seen, heard, known and loved for who they are. If someone grew up in an environment in which communication was sparse, inappropriate, aggressive or dismissive, they are not likely to have learned the skills necessary to effectively communicate needs, nor will they be adept at listening to the needs of their partner. It is, however, a skill that can be learned and also requires practice to to be effective.
Say What Isn’t Being Said
Relationship coach and sex educator, Reid Mihalko created a two step process to assist people in ‘being fully self expressed,’ as he describes it. Often, couples avoid voicing their deepest desires and most intimidating thoughts, since they fear it will cause rejection, or at the very least, distance from their partner. He encourages people to say what isn’t being said, finding that if they can move past the daunting aspects of conversation, the relationship has a greater chance of not only surviving, but thriving. Imagine a challenging issue your relationship; the elephant in the living room that everyone walks around, pretending that it is a large coffee table rather than a pachyderm. Perhaps it relates to financial challenges that you have been keeping from your partner for fear that they will think you a failure if you admit that your money management skills are not up to snuff. Applying the following technique could spell the difference between honest communication, leading to greater intimacy and ongoing secrecy and potential conflict and dissolution of the relationship.
Reid’s Difficult Conversation Formula In 2-Steps
Step 1 – Prepping Your Difficult Conversation
Step 1: Find some time alone and write down the answers to the following questions, in the order they appear… Just write for 3-5 minutes on each question, non-stop. Try to keep the pen moving or your fingers typing for the full 3-5 minutes. Write all the crap swirling around in your head and get it on paper or a computer screen. If you get stuck, write: “I’m stuck. I can’t think of anything…” until your brain unsticks itself. Keep moving!
A. What I’m not saying to ___(my partner, my boss, the hottie at the bar)__ is ___________________.
B. What I’m afraid might happen if I say it is ___(Remember, you’re brainstorming! Your list can’t be too long! The longer the better!)___.
C. What I’d like to have happen by saying this is ___(Write down all the positive things you can think of!)____.
Step 2 – Organizing Your Difficult Conversation
Step 2: Cut and paste your answers into this this script below which will be the script that you can memorize or read from when you talk to so and so. It can also be the script that you use to email them, etc.:
Dear ___(partner, boss, hottie at the bar)__, there are some things I’ve not been saying to you. I’m not saying them/haven’t been able to say them, because I’m afraid the following might happen:
- (Answers from B here)
- (Answers from B here)
- (Answers from B here)
What I would like to have happen by my telling you is:
And what I’m not telling you is (Answer from A here).
Thank you for listening. What, if anything, would you like to share?
Cutting and pasting the aforementioned issue into the template could look like this:
“Honey, I would like to talk about something that is really important and could bring our relationship to a different level. Are you open to hearing me now?” If yes, then proceed. If no, ask when would be a good time and then ask for agreement on that. Once an agreed upon time occurs, whether it is in that moment or a renegotiated appointment, continue.
“What I have wanted you to know that I have not been managing our money well and have used credit cards to pay our bills and have gotten us into debt. I didn’t want you to know that I had to take a pay cut at work. I was afraid to tell you, because:
I was afraid you would be angry with me.
I was afraid you would think I was irresponsible and you couldn’t trust me.
I was afraid you would leave me.
What I would like to have happen is that I can finally come clean with you and that I would feel a sense of relief and you would know that you could trust me, since I have now been honest with you. I would like to think we could start fresh here. Although I should have asked before for your help with this problem before it got out of hand, I am would like us to work as a team to resolve this.”
And then thank your partner and ask what they would like you to know.
A situation like this may not take a one and done approach. It might require periodic adjustment of typical means of interaction.
Why Is Active Listening Important?
According to Stephen R. Covey, who wrote “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Many years ago, I learned the phrase, “Listen with the ears of the heart.” What it indicated was a need to be fully present with the other person, truly drinking in what they were saying, as well as what they were not saying. Paying attention to body language is a crucial component, since keen observation is an important aspect of communication. I learned the art of Active Listening while working on a crisis intervention hotline in college. There, my skills were honed as I provided information, resources and an empathetic ear to those who called in at all hours needing support.
There are three components of this modality:
- Comprehending – In the comprehension stage of listening, the receiver listens to what the speaker is saying without focusing on other topics or attempting to second guess what the other person might say.
- Retaining – This step requires the listener to remember what the speaker has said so that the his or her complete message can be conveyed. Some people may choose to take notes if memory is likely to fail.
- Responding – This calls for offering both verbal and nonverbal feedback to the speaker that indicates the listener is both hearing and understanding what the speaker has said.
Sam: “Whenever I suggest a resolution to nearly any issue, you shoot my idea down, because you think you have all the answers. It’s frustrating hear ‘no’ all the time.”
While he was speaking, Alison listened intently and made eye contact with him, indicating that she was fully present with him. She nodded, following along. And then, as instructed by the therapist, she took a deep breath and responded: “What I’m hearing you say is that you have no power in the relationship, since I always seem to want to be in charge. Is that on target?”
Sam: “That’s about the size of it. When you do that, it’s like I’m the kid and you’re the parent, telling me what to do.”
Alison: “And it sounds to me like you are wanting me to understand that our roles aren’t right for the kind of relationship we want. We both need to be on a level playing field. Is that right?”
Sam: “Yes. If we can do that, I know things would be more peaceful at home and as a bonus, we would have more fun.”
I Only Have Ears For You
What are the benefits to being fully present in conversation?
- Increase in emotional intimacy
- Your partner feels cared about
- Mutuality and working together to find a solution to problems
- Enhanced sense of trust with each other
- Strengthening the union
“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally,” advises Susan Cain, the author of
Couple talking photo available from Shutterstock