Never be accused of “never listening” again.
It’s a common exchange in relationships: Your partner is upset and starts talking. And talking. And talking. You think you understand and demonstrate that by saying “OK.” Maybe you nod some. Perhaps you offer a solution or try to cheer your partner up.
Before you can think, “Boom! Nailed it!” you partner is even more escalated and starts repeating things you’ve already heard. You offer a new solution. Maybe a new way of lightening the mood. Next thing you know, your partner has stormed off.
Now you’re confused. What just happened?
Your partner did not feel heard or understood. What started as an opportunity for emotional connection left her feeling worse than before, maybe even alone and angry in addition to whatever else she was experiencing.
How can you avoid this scenario? Here are a few simple strategies:
Do: Make eye contact and pay attention
Once you realize your partner is upset or talking about something important, turn your attention to him. Multitasking says, “I am not that interested in what you have to say.”
Do: Repeat what you hear
Repeating important parts of what your partner is saying lets them know you are listening. Saying “OK” or “uh huh” isn’t very satisfying. Listening actively by summarizing key points can be very reassuring. You are demonstrating you understand instead of saying you do.
Don’t: Give advice
Instead of assuming your partner can’t fix his own problem, ask before you start spewing advice. Most adults have the resources to gather and evaluate different perspectives and ideas, along with multiple sources to consult. He likely has fewer people with whom he is comfortable sharing emotions. He’s chosen you to open up to in that way. Don’t downgrade the interaction by going into problem-solving mode.
Do: Keep focused on your partner
Right now it isn’t about you. It is about your partner. Stay focused on your partner and her situation without hijacking the conversation.
Eventually, sharing a time you felt the same way or that something similar happened to you can be very helpful and reassuring. Initially, though, your partner needs to feel understood and have a chance to communicate her story.
Don’t: Cheer your partner up
If your partner is sad or angry, give her the space to experience that emotion, even if it is uncomfortable for you. Talking her out of her emotion by minimizing the problem or distracting her from it says, “Don’t show these emotions around me.” While your intentions are good, your actions can end up discouraging genuine emotional connection in the long run. Accepting your partner’s uncomfortable emotions and sitting with her says, “You don’t need to wear a mask around me.”
Do: Help your partner process his emotions
Validate your partners emotions. Simple statements and observations like, “I can tell you are really upset about this. What an infuriating situation” can be very reassuring and can help your partner feel better without talking him out of his emotions.
You don’t need to agree with his emotions or feel the same way to connect on an emotional level. Saying “I don’t know why you are so upset about this” can make your partner feel invalidated and alone in his experience.
Don’t: Judge you partner
You don’t need to agree. evaluate, or debate. All you need to do is listen and be with her. If it is important to you partner, you can show you care by listening. If she’s upset about something you consider dumb, now is not the time to tell her. If you think she is overreacting and looking for attention, do not take on the role of judge and decide whether or not the situation merits your attention or whether or not she deserves it. You aren’t clones of each other. Her idea of important might be very different from yours, and that is OK.
Next time you hear “You never listen!!!” or “You just don’t get it!!”, don’t defend yourself. Try something different. You can even use these tips to navigate a conversation where you are what is upsetting your partner. Remember: You don’t need to agree with your partner or change her experience. Just listen, demonstrate you understand, and validate her feelings.
Photo: Flickr/Garry Knight