By Joseph Honsberger, LCSW-C
Communication is extremely important to having a satisfying, intimate, long-term relationship. We often learn that it’s important to tell your partner how you feel or what you think, but we don’t hear as much about how to really listen. Even if we improve our ability to speak directly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is really listening to what you are saying. Why is that?
How we communicate with those we love is affected by many influences. For example, our childhood experiences shape our own behavior, whether or not we are aware of it. Did you ever say, “I sound just like my mother (or my father)”? Did you hear your parents discussing a problem? Were they yelling and screaming at each other, or were they calm? Maybe you never even saw them disagreeing about an issue.
Perhaps you have reacted by resolving to avoid yelling when you disagree with your spouse, or never to argue in front of the children. On the other hand, maybe you’ve chosen to imitate your parents by allowing your children to see that sometimes adults disagree, but they can have a civil discussion about it and come to a resolution.
Gender sometimes plays a role in communication. When working with couples, I often hear the woman saying that she doesn’t feel heard by her husband. And the husband reports that his wife doesn’t listen to his suggestions. Disconnects sometimes occur because men may focus on solving or fixing a problem, while women tend to want to talk about it and want to know that their partner is listening.
If we are aware of and try to understand each other’s styles of communication, and talk about it, we do not have to stay locked into past patterns. We can change our mode of communication.
But most importantly, no matter how we communicate, we need to respect our differences and work towards listening to what the other person needs or wants.
If you feel like your partner is not listening when you are talking, it may be helpful to:
- Let him know that you want him to listen and empathize, instead of telling you what he thinks you should do. If you want suggestions, ask for them. After all, we can’t expect our partner to be a mind reader.
- Have your partner repeat back in her own words what she heard from you; then you will know if she really understood you.
- What if your partner comes home obviously upset by work but does not want to talk about it right away? Try to put yourself in his shoes and let him have the space he needs.
- Avoid interrupting each other, and wait until your partner has finished talking before you react. This is a big key to really listening to what someone is saying.
Listening is not always easy, especially when we are angry or stressed. Even if you follow some of these suggestions, it takes time and practice to become an empathic, attentive listener. These skills can help you and your partner develop a mutual respect that is the basis for meaningful communication, and intimacy. If you still have been unable to improve your communication and listening skills, it may be time to consult with a therapist or another objective third party to assist you in your quest for a satisfying relationship.
By Joseph Honsberger, LCSW-C, Senior Manager, Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
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