Listening for true understanding
In our previous column, we made the point that marriage is like a contact sport, and that the ‘game’ is more fun, and certainly safer, when we both understand the rules of engagement. We outlined three rules for the Speaker and now we’d like to do the same for the Listener.
In any intimate conversation, there are two roles, the Speaker and the Listener. The Speaker’s role is to help the Listener to encounter their inner experience so that he or she can understand it, and even more, experience it through a process of empathic engagement. This means, that the Listener feels within his or her own person the emotions experienced by the Speaker.
As you can imagine, it is profoundly intimate and deeply bonding. It also transforms the exchange from a simple conversation to an emotional communion of the two persons. Physiologically, our brains are equipped to do this via ‘mirror neurons’, which detect the emotional experience of the other, and mimic it in our own brain.
We like to summarise the Speaker’s role as being ‘I’ focussed: Inner life, I sentencing, Intensity, Image, Impact (for a recap click here)
In contrast to the Speaker role, the Listener’s role is ‘You’ focussed, that is focussed on the other. We use a play on the word ‘you’ and the letter ‘u’ to explain this role and make it easier to remember.
The first task of the Listener is to Unclutter. In other words, to give your full attention to the Speaker. It seems pretty obvious but we often try to multitask when we communicate as a couple. We might be keeping a ‘to do’ list in our head of things awaiting us after the conversation, or we might be formulating our response rather than staying attuned to the message of the Speaker, or we might be mentally distracted by the whatever we were doing before the conversation began. This is deeply hurtful when we are sharing intimately.
It’s good practice for the Speaker to alert the Listener that we have something important to share and to be sensitive in our timing. For example, Francine has learnt over years of failed conversations that it’s really hard for Byron to have these kinds of conversations when he’s getting ready for work in the morning. His mind is already on the job, so we now keep our important conversations for a time when we can both be fully present.
But that’s not to say that the Listener is without responsibility here. If your spouse alerts you that he or she needs to talk with you, stop whatever else you’re doing, make eye contact and be fully present with all your senses. Be aware of your body language: use all your resources – touch, eye contact, posture and so on, to focus your attention and communicate it to your spouse.
We also advocate a Connect Hug for couples. This is simply a long hug of one to two minutes. Breathe deeply and after a minute or so, you’ll notice a physiological change. If you were tense or upset, you’ll feel the tension dissipate in your body.
The Connect Hug is a great way to literally get back in touch with each other; to ‘unclutter’, let go of the distractions and bring our attention fully to our spouse.
The second task of the Listener is to Understand. This ‘U’ task requires the Listener to use simple questions to ensure that we fully and accurately understand the message of the Speaker.
This is not meant to be an interrogation! Think in terms of gentle enquiry in a tone of voice that indicates a genuine desire to understand.
Take the example of a wife sharing how she feels when her husband is late. He (as the Listener) might ask: “What I hear you saying is that you feel hurt when I’m late. Is that what you meant?” or “Do you mean that you believe I’m late because I don’t like being with you?” or “Is your experience of it like being forgotten or is it more like being rejected?”
Any interpretation that you make as a Listener, you need to test it with the Speaker. The Speaker might confirm that your interpretation is correct, or he or she might adjust it.
The third task for the Listener is to Uncover. Whenever we share, there are always parts of ourselves and our experience that remain opaque to us. Sometimes the Listener will see it as the one who enters into our experience without our history to complicate it. They can venture more deeply with an “I wonder” question. For example, “I’m wondering if part of why this is so painful for you is because of your experience with your father”.
Another way the Listener can Uncover more is to ask when the Speaker has finished: “Is there anything else you’d like to share?” Often, we hold back on what we really need to share until we are sure that the Listener is ready to hear it. This simple question may be the prompt the Speaker needs to step out in vulnerability and share more deeply.
When this is done well, the mirror neurons in the Listener will activate and replicate the emotional response so that Listener feels something of the emotional experience of the Speaker.
The fourth and final task for the Listener is to Unite. This is accomplished through the process of validating the experience of the Speaker by recounting what was expressed. It’s more than simply repeating or paraphrasing what was said as the message is richly expressed with body language as well as the spoken word.
We call it ‘empathetic communion’ as it is truly a union of mind, heart and emotions. It requires the Listener to describe the Speaker’s experience from within the experience itself. For the Speaker, it is profoundly affirming and deeply impactful to receive such a message from our spouse.
Saint (Pope) John Paul II spoke of the ‘communion of persons’ to describe the inner life of the Trinity and the call for each of us to be in intimate relationship with Jesus. These ‘rules of engagement’ for intimate communication are not just for couples, but for all our close relationships, including our relationship with Jesus.
Practice these habits in your marriage and then take them into your prayer life. We guarantee it will transform your marriage and your faith.
The Listener’s role is ‘You/U’ focussed, that is focussed on the other through Unclutter, Understand, Uncover and Unite.
PS: One final point: we can’t be both Speaker and Listener at the same time because the focus on ‘I’ or ‘you’ is mutually exclusive. Generally, we find it harder to stay in our role of Listener so it takes considerable self-restraint and discipline to do so.
Therefore, it’s important to take turns to be the Speaker. If you are having difficulty keeping the roles separate, use a concrete object, such as a pen or your keys, to clearly identify who is the designated Speaker at any particular time. When the Speaker has finished and the Listener has validated their message, hand over the item and swap roles.
If this all sounds a bit too complicated, think about signing up to the SmartLoving Sponsor online course with your spouse. We’ll walk you through the process step by step. And you can access it for free until Aug 18 with the coupon code CLSponsor www.smartloving.org/sponsor