Listen Up!

People often ask me if there is one primary rule for communication in a successful relationship. Well, speaking from my professional experience, I would say that the most overlooked area of communication is: Listening. People often assume that listening is for the benefit of the other partner. “I know I should listen — for his (or her) sake, right?” Wrong. Your partner may indeed benefit from your listening, but the main reason for being quiet and listening is so you can THINK. Specifically, to think about what your partner is saying. It’s a matter of self-interest and self-preservation if you want your relationship to survive.

When you’re arguing with someone you care about, listening helps you to better understand his or her point of view. By doing so, it’s easier to recognize honest misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions and conflicting priorities, as well as easily resolved problems and/or irreconcilable differences.

In certain cases, I recommend that couples supplement their talking/arguing by writing carefully thought-out letters to each other. The letters should detail their feelings and why they are feeling them. Couples that make the effort to do it definitely benefit from it. Why? Because the thinking required to string together words and sentences is a critical component of effective communication.

I have found that the three most prevalent mistaken assumptions about communication (along with ways to correct them) are:

Mistaken assumption #1: ‘I’m already trying hard enough. My spouse must do better first.’ Not true. While it’s entirely possible that your spouse might not listen, all you can do is try — or give up. If it’s rational to give up (and break up), then fine. But if you’re not prepared for that big step, then you have no other choice but to keep trying. It might not seem fair, but you can think of it as bravely taking the lead.

Mistaken assumption #2: ‘If I stop talking, I won’t get my point across.’ Wrong again. Listening actually makes your point more meaningful. If you proceed to chatter on while totally disregarding what your partner or spouse just said, you’re not going to be listened to. On the other hand, if you acknowledge what’s being said, and respond accordingly, you’ll almost certainly be heard. As an illustration, imagine you’re in a car. The person with you says, ‘Turn right here. That’s how you get to John’s.’ Maybe you want to go to the drug store first. If you’re listening you can say, ‘I know that’s the way to John’s. But I want to go to the drug store first.’ If you don’t listen, and you simply reply, ‘Stop telling me what to do,’ the resulting anger will (to say the least) result in your not being heard. That’s why I call listening ‘simple self-preservation.’

Mistaken assumption #3: ‘I already know what he’s saying. I don’t need to listen.’ Not entirely true. Maybe you do know what he’s saying, but if he’s saying it again, he probably believes you haven’t heard him. You can easily correct things by politely acknowledging him. Don’t snap, ‘I already know that!’

Conversation isn’t just a bunch of words. It should be the product of two people thinking about a situation that’s important to both of them. In a way, conversation is a form of ‘thinking out loud.’ One of the nice things about having a close friend or partner is that you can think aloud with this person about what you feel and what’s important to you. People who get caught up in fights and disagreements with their loved ones are ignoring these advantages. They’re more concerned about getting the ‘upper hand’ or ‘being right.’ This adversarial approach to (what is supposed to be) a loving relationship makes no sense. There’s no need to ‘win.’ There’s only a need to feel acknowledged and understood. Communication is great for achieving that, but it’s useless for trying to ‘win’ arguments.

It requires a sense of personal responsibility to ‘take the high road.’ Personal responsibility is a lot more than just paying your bills or showing for work. Real personal responsibility means accepting the fact that you have control over your own mind and emotions. If you believe that you — and you alone — have control over your mind and emotions, you’ll be a spectacular marital partner, because you won’t just blindly react when you’re angry or hurt. Instead, you’ll ask yourself, ‘What’s causing these feelings right now?’ In some cases, you may recognize it’s your problem and you’ll leave your spouse alone. In other cases, you’ll see that your partner’s actions (right or wrong) have led you to a certain conclusion or assumption. You may not be sure whether the conclusion is valid, but you’re willing to ‘own’ it and talk about it rationally. That’s the difference between reacting and thinking. Thinking is better, and believe me, thinkers make the best lovers.