Couples Communication: Listening Without Reacting

Couples Communication: Listening Without Reacting

We often associate communication with what is being said and not with what is being heard.  Research shows (Adler, R. et. al., 2001) that we spend approximately 30% more time listening than talking in communication, yet listening is far less understood.  It doesn’t matter how good a communicator you are if nobody hears what you’re saying.  One of the main differences between talking and listening is that you cannot prepare to listen.  While you can rehearse what you’re going to say beforehand, and even have a reminder list handy, listening happens in real time.  The gap between talking and listening gets even greater when the listener becomes emotional.  We do not comprehend as quickly when we are emotional and the spoken word doesn’t wait for us to catch up, it disappears just as quickly as when we are not emotional.

In all my years of being a therapist the biggest impediment to good communication is undoubtedly learning how to listen without reacting.  Interestingly, to have any hope of being a better communicator we have to stop talking.

Assumptive Listening: When it comes to listening we tend to hear what we expect to hear and then react to our assumptions rather than what is actually being said.  I call this kind of selective hearing “assumptive listening,” and it is deadly to constructing a good conversation.  By listening for what we expect to hear we’ve already predetermined our reaction.  For example, Angie tells Brian that she is tired; Brian interprets “tired” to mean Angie is uninterested in him.  Angie reiterates she has had a hard day, which Brian thinks is shorthand for “leave me alone.”  After a couple of go rounds Angie gets frustrated that Brian isn’t listening to her.  Brian interprets her frustration correctly and assumes it confirms that Angie isn’t interested in him.  This assumptive reasoning frustrates the hell out of Angie causing her to no longer be interested in him.  Brian, of course, was going on that assumption all along, and now it’s true.  Assumptive listening creates self-fulfilling prophecies like the one above.  All Angie wanted was to get her point across and have an early bedtime, not get drawn into an argument about what she was “really” saying.  After a while, Angie was a raving lunatic with a big target on her chest saying, don’t listen to anything I say because I’m out of my mind right now.  Suddenly, her emotions were the problem while her content was hopelessly lost in them.

Trigger Points: It’s also important to consider that whatever you are frustrated about, or trying to get your partner to understand, comes from personal experiences you’ve had long before you met your partner, but that your partner triggers.  In this case, Angie felt overlooked by her parents, so when Brian overlooked her comment that she was tired her emotional filter amplified her reaction making it disproportionate to the event.  Brian too was neglected in his family so he was conditioned to react harshly to neglect, even when it wasn’t there.  Brian and Angie trigger each other activating assumptive reactions that quickly take potential listening opportunities and turn them into communication nightmares.

Listening for the Facts: It’s easier to make assumptions than it is to get the facts, and to be a good listener you have to get the facts!  As in the example with Angie and Brian, assuming the facts leads to prolonged periods of miscommunication since all the assumptions are automatically refuted.  Our assumptions, sadly, become our facts, which in turn form the basis for incredibly poor communication patterns.

Unfortunately, when we’re emotional we tend to speak in conclusions.  Brian’s conclusion was, “You’re not interested in me.”  We rarely seek to understand what the other person is saying nor do we communicate our interest in what they’re saying adequately enough when we’re upset.  We’re more interested in what we’re saying and we’re pretty sure what we’re saying is correct.  Rather than closing down the discussion by concluding, “You’re not interested in me,” Brian could have elicited the facts instead by inquiring, “What happened today that made you so tired?”  Inquiries are questions, while conclusions are statements.  By speaking in conclusions we assume we know the facts and have drawn accurate conclusions based upon them.  It’s the lazy person’s way to communicate.  Inquiries seek to understand, while conclusions are declarations.  Inquiries get the facts, while conclusions assume the facts.  Inquiring minds want to know, while closed minds act as if they already do.

Communication is complex, complicated and quite frankly one of the hardest things for human beings to master.  But with a little patience, some self-discipline, and the desire to be a better partner communication can become much more rewarding.  If you learn to listen carefully you will naturally avoid assumptive and reactive listening and become a better overall communicator.

Five Minute Articles For Your Consideration2 comments

  1. Very helpful. Thanks Larry!

  2. Carole Wager says:

    Very interesting Larry, and excellent advice for couples having problems communicating. I think we are all guilty of assumptive listening.

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