People often ask me if there is one primary rule for communication in a successful relationship. From my experience, I would say that the most overlooked area of communication is the simple act of 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 benefit from your listening, but the main reason for being quiet and listening is so you can 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 to recognize misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions and conflicting priorities, many of which could be easily resolved.
I often recommend that couples supplement their talking/arguing with carefully thought-out letters detailing their feelings. Couples who make the effort actually benefit from it, because the thinking required to string together words and sentences is a critical component of effective communication.
There are three major, and mistaken, assumptions about communication:
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, then you have no other choice but to keep trying. 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 disregarding your partner or spouse, you’re not going to be listened to. 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. 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 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 that.
Conversation is the product of two people thinking about a situation that’s important to them both. In a way, it’s like “thinking out loud”. One of the nice things about having a close friend or partner is that you can think aloud 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 being right.
It requires a sense of personal responsibility to take the high road. More than just paying your bills or showing up for work, real personal responsibility means accepting the fact that you have control over your mind and emotions. If you believe that you and you alone have control over your mind and emotions, then you won’t blindly react when you’re angry or hurt. Instead, you’ll ask yourself, “What’s causing these feelings?” In some cases, you may even recognize it’s your problem. In other cases, you’ll see that your partner’s actions (right or wrong) have led you to a certain conclusion or assumption. You might not be sure if the conclusion is valid, but you’re willing to own it. That’s the difference between reacting and thinking. Thinking is better, and believe me, thinkers make the best lovers.
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