Have you ever been in a debate or conflict with someone who replies to your opinion of fact by saying, “I hear what you are saying but…”? Or maybe you find yourself using this phrase when you are in conversations with your partner, family, or work relationships? In any case, I do not hear many people proclaim to be bad listeners. On the contrary, most people are convinced they are good listeners (96%). I would assume that this number sounds as outlandish to you as it does to me in my experience.
We often underestimate the value of our listening skills as it is related to getting our own needs met. I want to make the case, in the spirit of personal responsibility that limitations in my own ability to listen are at least in part, contributing to my lack of relational satisfaction. Furthermore, because I can’t control others (see Thomas P Seager, PhD article related to this), listening is a faculty that I can personally develop in order to rule out its contribution to my experience of dissatisfaction. It is something we can put our energy into that will actually benefit us as opposed to spinning our wheels, trying to get others to agree with us.
First, we need to make a distinction in our own minds if we are going to be good at relating to our partners. Carefully take a look at the below definitions:
According to Oxford Living Dictionaries, to listen is to give attention to sound or action. When listening, one is hearing what others are saying, and trying to understand what it means. The act of listening involves complex affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes.
Now that we have those two definitions established let’s look at the difference as it relates to communication within a relationship. A conflict, or point of contention, becomes evident in the environment. At this point, successful communication about this issue will make or break our ability to solve the problem. Now, both parties may have different opinions as to what a “solved” problem looks like. As well, each person’s individual opinion is driven by their internal experience, which is adding meaning to the external point of contention. To further complicate this process, the meaning of the problem as it relates to me may not always be self-evident to even myself. Still, as anyone one with experience will note, a neutral topic of disagreement can quickly get emotional and personal when the meaning is not being expressed and/or being understood.
The Mistmatched Rule Book
Where do these emotions come from? Why are the issues not just a matter of fact? As an individual, I have a set of prescribed rules that my brain uses to sort out what’s essential and what’s not important in my environment. Timothy Wilson, in Strangers to Ourselves, reports that about 11,000,000 pieces of stimuli are entering my brain every second, yet I can only be conscious of about 40. Those 40 are distinctly individual, and although there might be overlap in what I find essential versus another person, the reason I find it important is unique to me and my rules.
These rules were established early in my life and become the lens or perspective through which I see the world. These rules are tied to my security system, and when they seem violated, I feel threatened. In essence, they are revealing insecurity inside of me. They run so automatically that I tend not to see them as something under my control. However, they are indeed under our ability to observe them at work. This is the role of developing mindfulness which Gustavo Razzetti discuss here. If I am even aware enough to see them, my logical brain, which could help in this situation, typically spits out some logical explanation justifying my response that somehow my partner doesn’t agree.
Communicating My Rules
Regardless of the issue at hand, the value and meaning of that issue are being prescribed subjectively by me. I do not have the right to assume that another person will agree or see things similarly. When my rules are imposed on the conversation via the way I communicate and pursue their interest, then I may be said to be controlling. Hmmm…Have you ever been accused of this?
My efforts to convince the other party either logically or emotionally that “I am right” ends up coming across as sounding instead like “You are wrong.” This type of self-expression triggers a natural defense mechanism in the other party, which means listening is impossible.
Motivational Interviewing, which is a therapeutic approach that heavily emphasizes reflective listening and empathy while avoiding confrontation and argument, calls this the “Righting Reflex.” This instinctual response is an attempt to “make things right,” when a problem is noted. This type of response tends to draw a defensive posture psychologically, and all progress towards the solution is actually stunted. Real change and connection are fostered through active listening and understanding, not persuasion or under threat. Listening seems to go against our instincts when we feel like we are the ones being wronged or having an issue.
Now, I used the word listening on purpose. Hearing doesn’t stop when I’m defensive, but listening does. As matter of fact, hearing may even be amplified, but the amplification is limited to the rules of my threat system. In a sense, I am only hearing the things that are possible threats, while blocking out other vital information being provided. This is a useful response in an actual fight or flight situation, but a relational conflict rarely is a threat to my life or well being. Remember the definition above? Listening is a process that involves different brain faculties seeking to understand another person’s meaning and value. When I trigger the defense of another person by insinuating that they are wrong right from the start, then that person will not be able to understand what I am trying to say.
A Case in Point
The reason I may not be understood is that I am stating my opinion of the facts emphatically, without adding personal meaning. I am setting myself up for a tangled mess of both being misunderstood but also not getting my need or the problem solved. Expressing the personal meaning attached to my take on reality is a vulnerable endeavor. It requires me to be in touch, at least partly, with what the circumstance is representing to me.
For instance, Mike and Kathy are continually at odds because Mike shuns Kathy’s attempts to have an in-depth conversation about world events and politics. On one hand Kathy feels like Mike does not value her and does not provide the depth she is seeking in the relational connection. Mike, on the other hand, thinks that Kathy’s strong political opinions are rigid and that she gets too defensive when he brings up an opposing viewpoint. Their inability to bridge this gap leaves both parties feeling oppressed, disconnected, and alone.
If you were reading that closely, you might see that Kathy desperately wants to connect but ends up feeling rejected. Mike, on the other hand, feels controlled and not able to voice his own opinion. Do you think that true meaning is ever conveyed in a clear way when the topic of conversation comes up between Mike and Kathy?
The way each person is experiencing the other, just like all external stimuli, goes through our own subject interpretation. How I receive and perceive information is distinct to my perspective and internal rules of defense. As partners, we need to be aware of how we are being received so that we can be listened to and understood on that more profound level. Interestingly, as Lesli Doares describes, there may be some valuable information found in seeing how we are percieved. However, if in my attempts to be understood sound more like attempts to be right, then I will lose on both accounts.
“I” Statements: The Key to the Door?
It is commonly advised that a person utilize “I” statements when expressing themselves. This tends to bring out an expression of one’s own feelings if done right. The problem to watch out for is that people tend to sabotage the technique, as Andrew Christenson Ph.D and Brian Doss Ph.D state by, “Prefacing unadulterated judgments with an “I feel.”” Such as, “I feel like you are selfish.” In other words, they mix up their feelings, with their judgment of the other person’s behavior, thus setting off a defensive response from their partner.
The correct way to state your feelings is to simply say them. “I feel angry about this situation,” or “I feel sad about what happened.” A person who is hellbent on passing judgment may say the later statements and include a “because of you” type of statement or insert judgment through non-verbal messages such as negative facial expressions or voice tones. In any case, when we express judgment, we are assuring that our partner is not going to be able to listen; thus, we sabotage our needs getting met and decrease safety in the relationship.
In relationships, we have the dual responsibility of being better listeners towards our partners and better communicators of our needs. Even the best communication may warrant a rejected response based on my partner’s ability to listen. However, no one is a perfect communicator all of the time, and so much of my partner’s ability to listen is based on their own issues, mood, etc. I can, though, increase the chances of being heard if I attach meaning to my discussion about whatever topic I find as the point of contention. I am not entitled to be right or agreed with, but in an intimate relationship, I do have the right to be understood.
Being understood involves not just being heard, but being listened to, and the way I’m talking might be hurting my partner’s ability to listen. As real as it might be that your partner is a horrible listener, which Victor Ng’eno notes that most people are, you are still responsible for how you present your needs in order to give them a chance at getting met. If you feel like your not getting them met, before you go blaming your partner, take a look at how you are expressing yourself. Is your true meaning coming through? Or are you expressing judgment that is shrouding the real meaning?
Previously published on Medium.com.
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