Learning to Listen Well

couple listening to each other Communicating is made up of two primary components, expressing yourself…and listening to another express himself. To do that well, we have to get what the other person is saying. Not just their words, but their heart, intent, and purpose.

Jarrod and Emma are struggling with their marriage. They’ve been married three years and both complain of feeling lonely. When I met with them I encouraged them to each share their feelings about a specific subject. As I observed their interaction, I noticed that neither one seemed to really be engaging in the other’s expression of frustration and pain.

Instead, each one waited politely for the other to finish, then launched into their own rendition of circumstances.

No wonder they were lonely. They had lost the friendship and camaraderie they had had in the beginning. Each of them really was alone in the marriage.

When they had finished, I asked Jarrod if he felt Emma respected his point of view understood what he had expressed. He said no. Emma’s face took on a shocked expression.

I then asked Emma if she had felt understood and supported by Jarrod as she poured out her heart.  She also said no, that she didn’t feel he was listening at all. Jarrod’s facial expression turned to surprise.

So we talked about the importance of empathizing with your partner when they’re telling you their concerns and feelings about anything. That to be really heard by our partner means they care about what we’re feeling.  It’s not that we have to have the same viewpoint to have connection. It’s just that we need to know our partner cares about us and our lives.

We then did an exercise to get them started in a new direction.

Each of them in turn was to recall a childhood memory … happy or sad. The other partner was to actively listen by repeating in his/her own words what their partner had related, then express the emotion they felt their partner must have felt at the time…in an effort to show empathy.

Emma told the story of her first surprise birthday party, getting home from the store with her dad and walking into the house to find all her friends shouting, “Surprise!!!”  There were balloons everywhere, and ever since, she’s loved balloons.

Jarrod repeated what he’d heard, that she came home and walked into house to hear her friends shout Surprise!! and because there were balloons everywhere, she likes balloons because they remind her of that happy day. Then he said, “That’s such a great memory. I bet it was really exciting for you. I’m so glad you had that experience. Do you wish all your birthdays were like that?”

Emma responded, “No, not at all.  It would not be so special if it happened all the time. Every birthday is special for its own reason. But yes, that was a very exciting day for me.”

Jarrod then told his memory, with similar responses from Emma, and a continued exchange between them.

I then asked each of them if they felt like their spouse had understood and cared about what they had shared…and they both agreed they did, and felt that special connection for a moment that they used to have.

We agreed they would take out time each evening after dinner, to sit down and share an important memory and actively respond with empathy to each other. No other requirements, just one memory each evening. And we’d talk about it the following session.

In the weeks that followed, we changed the subject matter from memories, to an event of the day, to more controversial subjects.  In a couple months, Jarrod and Emma had learned to turn their hearts to each other no matter the subject, and to show each other they genuinely cared about the other’s experiences and feelings.

Strong relationships take work and practice, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

How about you?  When you listen, do you really put your heart into it?  Do you hear?