It can happen at the most unexpected times. A simple conversation with your partner suddenly becomes a heated argument. Both of you trying to get your point across but nobody seeming to listen. Quickly it escalates until either one person resentfully walks away or you both compete to see who can shout the loudest.
When it happens occasionally it is upsetting. When it happens frequently it can be quite toxic for your relationship.
Nobody wants to lose the argument – both of you want to win. The problem is, trying to win means the other person must lose and this is why arguments get as heated as they do. During a heated discussion something very primitive goes on inside us and our fight-or-flight response gets triggered. This causes us to lose sight of the bigger picture and simply focus on winning. And in evolutionary terms this would be very advantageous – winning would mean surviving. However, when it happens with our partner we just end up caught in an unhappy struggle that ends with one or both people feeling upset or angry.
A common scenario
We’ve all been there. You have an important point to make and you are trying to explain it. The problem is that no matter how hard you try your partner just doesn’t seem to hear you. As soon as you finish speaking they jump straight in with their point of view and it feels as if they haven’t heard a word you just said. You become impatient and you try even harder to be understood. You think more carefully about your choice of words and try to be as clear as possible. Perhaps you talk slowly in case they aren’t as intelligent as you once thought. Or maybe you raise your voice in case they have gone deaf in the last few moments. Your impatience builds to annoyance and then frustration or anger, and you wonder how you ended up with such a difficult person in your life – surely nobody else has this problem!
Why is this so difficult?
Part of the problem is that your partner is probably having the same experience towards you. They are trying their hardest to be heard and understood and they are getting more and more frustrated with you because they feel as if YOU don’t listen! You are both focused on talking and neither of you is listening.
You both want to be heard and understood but unfortunately the harder you try the less likely you are to succeed. When you feel as if your partner doesn’t care what you are saying, you aren’t very motivated to show an interest in what they are saying either. So you respond to them in the same way that they are responding to you – you focus on talking and you stop listening.
What can we do instead?
It might sound illogical at first, but the reciprocal frustration that you both experience is also the key to a better outcome. Why? As mentioned earlier, if you don’t feel that your partner is listening to you then you don’t listen to them – you respond the same way to them that they do to you. So it makes sense that the reverse might also true: if you want your partner to listen to what you are saying then rather than try to be a better speaker, you need to become a better listener. If you listen to them, and they can see that you are making an effort to listen, then (either naturally or with a gentle nudge) they will be more inclined to listen to you as well.
So how do we listen better?
Better listening means more than just keeping quiet long enough for the other person to finish. To be a better listener you have to try to understand what the other person is saying and then you have to let them know that you have heard them. And you can do this by repeating it back to them. Not word for word, like a parrot – but in your own words you summarize what they have just said and in doing so you are showing them that you have listened and are trying to understand. It isn’t enough to just say “Yes, I understand”. You must prove that you understand. And in summarising back to them what they have just said you are showing them that you are listening and that you are interested in what they have to say.
Listening does not mean agreeing
An important point – listening does not mean agreeing. Actually, don’t agree with them. And don’t disagree either. Not yet. The key task here is simply to demonstrate that you have heard and understood. It doesn’t matter what they are saying or how crazy it might sound to you, you simply reflect it back to them to show that you have heard. For example, if they say that they think the world is flat and you mustn’t go too close to the edge in case you fall off, you reply something along the lines of, “I hear you saying that you believe the world is flat and that it is dangerous to get too close to the edge. Is that right?” If you have got it right they will tell you. And if you are not quite right yet they can clarify.
When we feel understood we relax and are able to listen to what is being said to us. When we don’t feel understood we become guarded and protect our point of view, making it very difficult to hear anything that might challenge it.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. Listening to what is said and reflecting it back sounds simple. And in essence it is. But in reality you will probably feel an irresistible urge to interrupt, agree, disagree, or rush in with you own point in case it gets forgotten. Try to resist this urge – your point will keep. If you are worried you might forget what you want to say then write it down so you don’t get distracted. And each time you reflect, follow on by asking if there is any more. Each time they tell you more, summarise it back to them. If you don’t understand or they feel as if you haven’t understood then don’t rush on ahead – stick with each particular point until you are both happy that you are on the same page. When your partner has finished and feels understood by you, then it is time to reverse the roles and for you to speak and for them to listen.
This might sound like hard work. And it is – at least to begin with. It will probably feel artificial and clunky and slow. But it will get easier with practice and as you both improve you will find your own style of doing it and perhaps only need to summarise when you sense that things are going off track.
Ultimately, when you can do this successfully then you will end up with 2 points of view to consider allowing you to weigh them up together, instead of the old way which only had a winner and a loser and a bitter aftertaste.
- Interrupt the argument before it takes off. When you feel the tension rise either one of you can stop it by saying, “We’re falling into that cycle – let’s start again”. The sooner you catch yourselves the better and if things have already got too heated then perhaps set a time to come back to it later when you have both cooled off a bit.
- Take turns. Decide who is going to speak first and who is going to listen.
- One person speaks. The speaker must try to say things in short blocks so that the listener can keep up. If you say too much at once it might be hard for the other person to follow and if they don’t get a chance to reflect what you say then you won’t know if they have understood.
- One person reflects. The listener reflects back what they hear and checks that they have understood correctly. E.g. “This is what I heard… Have I got it?”
- Change roles. When the speaker feels heard and understood and has finished then swap roles. If it has been a tough conversation so far then you might want to take a breather – put the kettle on and then come back to it. But make sure you come back at the agreed time!