Do conversations with your spouse sometimes lead to angry words and hurt feelings?
Do you feel unheard and misunderstood by your spouse?
Do the words “we need to talk” fill you with dread?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then your relationship can be enhanced by improving your listening skills.
Rearrange the letters in LISTEN and you get the word SILENT. One way to improve listening skills is to learn to be silent while the other person fully expresses what they want to say.
Perhaps you have heard or read about listening skills such as “active listening;” maybe you have even practiced them in the office of a counselor or therapist. If so, then when you are home without the guidance and direction of the counselor, do your conversations revert back to their old patterns? If this has been your experience, then maybe you have concluded that improving communication “doesn’t work” and have chosen to give up on improving your communication with your spouse.
If you have been struggling with communication skills, even after you have learned about them, then you are not alone. You have probably been speaking and listening in a certain way for many years, and so the old habits and patterns are deeply ingrained. It is usually far more difficult to change an old habit than to learn something completely new.
If you relate at all to any of these statements, then the technique I will present here might be helpful. It is very simple and doesn’t require any great skill. It does not require you to learn any new ways to speaking or responding to your partner. All that it requires is for you to listen silently for 5 minutes, and then speak to your spouse for 5 minutes.
To try this out, set aside 10 minutes with your spouse at a time when you are not likely to be interrupted. You will probably find having a designated spot for doing this helpful. This time will be spent with the only purpose of listening to your partner and for them to listen to you. Agree on who will speak first and who will listen. Set the timer for 5 minutes, during which time the speaker can talk about anything they wish. As a listener, you will not say anything. At most, give sounds (such as “mmm-hmmm”) that indicate you are attending fully to what is being said. During this time, put your full attention on them – your body posture, eye contact, and facial expression all conveying that all of your focus is on what they are saying. If thoughts come up, whether related or unrelated to what you are hearing, notice them and put them aside until the session is over. When the 5 minutes are up, respond with two words (only): “Thank you!” Then you reverse roles so that the speaker then listens attentively for 5 minutes and ends with “Thank you!” It is best for the second speaker to not address anything the first one has brought up in their share, at least at this time.
Common Challenges to Listening
Of course, “simple” is not the same as “easy.” As the listener, being silent is not being disengaged. To the contrary, while you are silently listening, you are fully engaged and focused exclusively on hearing what your spouse is expressing. Some men have difficulty with this exercise in fighting the urge to “fix” any problems that might arise by giving advice or suggestions. There is a time for that later – the purpose of this is to simply hear as fully as you are able what they are expressing. There will likely be a time later when you have an opportunity to “fix.” Another problem men sometimes have is having their minds drift onto other thoughts while their spouse is sharing. Since men tend to be single-focused, this often results in a complete disconnect from what their partner is saying. Many men have become adept at appearing to listen while nodding and saying “yes dear” or the equivalent, while not listening at all. If you find this happening, simply notice it and re-focus your attention on what she is saying.
A similar challenge women have is focusing exclusively on one thing. Since many women are natural multi-taskers, they are often able to listen while also thinking about other topics. They can struggle to focus on only one thing: listening to what their spouse is saying. If this is the case (whether you are a man or a woman), then simply notice when it is happening and bring your attention back to your partner.
As simple as this may seem, some find it difficult to stay silent for a whole 5 minutes. At first it may seem like an eternity – with practice, it gets to be more comfortable. If you and your spouse have struggled in the communication department, it may take awhile to start to trust that you will be attentively listened to when you speak. Many people find that just being listened to without interruption for 5 minutes is a new experience.
Suggestions for Success
This is not a problem solving technique. As the speaker, it is best to start with fairly neutral topics rather than ones that have been a problem. It is not a time to vent at your spouse or criticize them, since they must be silent during this exercise. The purpose is to develop listening “muscles,” and that is best done with topics without an emotional charge, at least to begin with.
Schedule a mutually agreed-upon time to do this, ideally when you are both confident that it is a time when you can direct your full attention to each other. Find a special spot for the exercise, and when you are finished get up and move elsewhere, especially if you wish to continue the conversation or if something has come up that you wish to discuss further. Be strict about the time – when the timer beeps, the speaker immediately stops talking, which is the cue for the listener to say “Thank you!” If you wish to discuss something further, do so after the exercise is finished and you have moved to a different part of the house.
Be aware that this is an exercise with the purpose of improving the connection and communication between the two of you. Be sure to keep it “safe.” Do not use anything that your spouse shares as a weapon. By the same token, at first don’t share things that are problematic, and certainly don’t criticize your spouse. As the speaker, keep it safe for the listener.
This technique is only one small step towards validation. It can be an important step, however. As the speaker, you may feel you have been heard, but perhaps not fully understood and validated. Since there is no feedback from your spouse, having that expectation for this technique will likely lead to frustration.
Some have reported that often couples spend less that 20 minutes a week in meaningful communication. With just this exercise a part of your daily schedule, you will spend considerably more time in conscious communication with your spouse.