Every intimate conversation is an adventure into a person’s inner world – their needs, passions, hardships, and unique view of the world.
The problem is many of us, myself included, can be terrible travelers. We don’t listen well, don’t ask questions, and sometimes wander off on our own adventure in our head, abandoning our talking partners.
We act like tourists in a foreign land. We visit someplace new but only associate with the components most similar to the familiar world we know by staying in an “all inclusive” resort. 1
Traveling into Your Partner’s Heart
“Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like a study.” – Paul Fussel
When couples start dating, they ask questions and intimately explore each other’s personal values, worldviews, and interests. They study each other and remember what they learned.
Danny and Sam share how they couldn’t stop talking the first three months of their relationship. “There were many nights were we just lay in bed till 3 a.m. asking each other questions like, ‘If you could have a secret talent, what would it be and why would you want that talent?’” As they describe their dating years, it’s clear this couple playfully explored each other on an intimate level.
Unfortunately, like most of us, Danny and Sam forgot to continue this as the years turned into decades. Now 22 years after first meeting, they say, “I feel disconnected from him. He never cares about my feelings,” and, “She never asks me about the things I care about. Everything that comes out of her mouth is about what I have to do around the house.”
“Few dating couples would get married if they had as little focused conversation as most married couples do.” – William Doherty, Ph.D.
Many couples who are disconnected have lost the art of traveling into each other’s hearts. Sometimes this is because they don’t prioritize the relationship and neglect to make time for talking and learning more about each other. Another reason is they believe they already know everything there is to know about each other.
The famous couples therapist Esther Perel reminds us that “[m]ystery is not about traveling to new places, it is about looking with new eyes.”
The truth is that your partner is constantly changing and will forever be a mystery. Psychologist Dan Gilbert states in his TED talk that “the only constant in life is change.”
The problem then isn’t so much our partners, but rather our own attitudes and limited knowledge on how to explore our partner’s inner world with the same spontaneity and fun that caused us to fall in love in the first place.
Maintaining that passion requires intentionally making an effort to take time to talk and explore each other’s inner world with curiosity.
Barriers to an Intimate Conversation
Your ability to have an intimately connecting conversation is a reflection of your own experiences of other people exploring your inner world. I’ve had people like Danny tell me “I don’t do empathy.”
Which really tells me they’ve rarely experienced someone being empathic. They likely grew up in a family that discounted feelings and focused on action, blocking them from developing the emotional intelligence to understand their inner emotional world and the inner emotional worlds of the people around them.
In particular, hypermasculine attitudes are built on the idea of fixing things. This mindset blocks the person (man or woman) from seeking to understanding feelings first. Often these individuals fail to recognize and accept feelings of fear and helplessness in themselves and may therefore have difficulty recognizing them in others.
So the moment they feel their difficult feelings, they numb and go into “fix it” mode, or get angry and try to control their partner. They become colonialists who conquer the land and try to instill their cultural values on its inhabitants instead of understanding the beauty of the native culture that was already there.
You Are Responsible for Your Emotional Development
If you are the emotionally unavailable partner, you may have a nagging partner who is pushing you to be more emotional, and you’re frustrated because it’s a foreign language to you. Like Danny, you have to reach a point where you take on the responsibility for your emotional development. 2
The Art of Intimate Listening
Below are the seven listening skills to have an emotionally intimate conversation. Consider it your passport into your partner’s inner world.
Skill One: The Body Language of Intimate Listening
Having an intimate conversation is having an intentional conversation. Being completely present with your lover implies total immersion in what they are sharing. This means no multitasking by checking your cell phone, watching TV, etc. Essentially, your body language is saying, “You are the most important person in the world right now and I want to truly hear what you have to say.”
Skill Two: Enjoy the Journey and Truly Listen
When you’re listening to your partner, you’re going to have thoughts come into your mind. You need to let them come and go like clouds in the sky. Stay with the conversation. If you ask a question about something from three minutes ago, it’s a sign you’re not truly listening. Don’t listen just to reply. Listen to understand.
One reason we don’t listen is because most of us would rather talk. Another reason is we become distracted. Our brains can listen at a speed of 500 words per minute, but most people only talk about 225 words per minute, leaving space for our mind to fill in the blanks.3 Being completely present during the intimate conversation requires intentionality and energy to be attentive. If you’re not understanding each other, you’re just two people talking over each other.
Skill Three: Immerse Yourself on the Journey
Demonstrate that you are listening and following the guide by using minimal encouragements, such as nodding your head and making sounds like “mmm,” “mhm,” or “uh-huh.” Doing this tells the speaker that you are listening to them and are tracking what they are sharing, thus encouraging them to share more.
If you want to be advanced, immerse yourself in the conversation by reflecting the feelings of the story in your face and words. Such as expressing excitement when your partner is sharing something exciting or expressing a surprise when your partner shares something surprising, such as by exclaiming, “That’s crazy!”
Skill Four: Ask Exploring Questions That Deepen Emotional Connection
You stop exploring when you ask closed-ended questions that lead to “yes” or “no” answers.
Instead, you want to ask questions that continue exploring your partner’s thoughts and feelings. These exploratory questions help your partner open up. 4 Here are some examples:
- How does this impact you?
- What are you seeking here?
- How are you feeling about this?
- What is so meaningful about this event?
- What do you wish you could do?
Skill Five: Reflect to Clarify You Understand
It’s easy to misinterpret what your partner said, or to assume what your partner feels. Reflecting is a great way to make sure you understand exactly what your partner is expressing and feeling. It also leads to greater exploration because the speaker (your guide) feels like you are next to them on their inner journey.
Reflecting is a way of summarizing what your partner said. Here are some examples:
- “If I’m hearing you correctly, your boss rejected your proposal and you feel disappointed because you put a lot of effort into that proposal.”
- “You are excited because you get to spend time with your best friends from college.”
- “You feel annoyed because you value being organized and sometimes our child is rather messy.”
If you do this correctly, your partner will say, “YES!” and then continue expressing more.
Skill Six: Express Empathy and Validate Feelings
Empathy is attempting to step into your partner’s inner world and validate how they feel about something. Empathy is saying,
- “Understanding things from your perspective, it makes sense why you’re so upset about this.”
- “That is terrible. This must be really hard for you to deal with.”
- “Wow. You must be so proud of getting that promotion. I know I’m proud of you!”
Empathy requires being with your partner in their feelings. This is deeply intimate. We all want to feel like our feelings are valid, even if we think they may be irrational. It’s often when we feel validated that we then go on to solve our own problems. The biggest obstacle to partners doing this is a result of not being raised to accept all their feelings. To work on this read this article.
Skill Seven: Pausing the Guide When Lost
Since the guide is more familiar with their inner world than you are, it’s very easy for them to miss sharing something. If you feel confused, listen for a little longer (10-30 seconds) and if you’re still lost, kindly interrupt your partner and reflect what they’ve shared, “Hey. I want to make sure I’m understanding you. You said, [summarize], am I understanding that correctly?”
As a speaker, you have a responsibility to be a guide through your inner world in such a way that your partner can follow you. Below are three skills to help you speak in a way that encourages your partner to listen.
Skill One: Share Your Feelings and Perspective
Focus on sharing your feelings and speaking from your experience.
- “I felt excited when John offered me the promotion at work.”
- “I feel alone in taking care of my father. Everyone else is so far away.”
- “I have mixed feelings about what to do.”
Skill Two: Be Brief
Avoid offering play-by-play enactments of your experience unless the story warrants it. Going on and on about the details for 20 minutes will lose the listener. They care less about the details and more about how the situation impacted you. So focus on your feelings and what your experiences meant to you.
Moreover, going on and on and on doesn’t allow your partner the space to be a part of the conversation, to ask questions, or to engage. Eventually they disengage and stop listening. As the sharer of your intimate world, you have to be aware of your audience.
“A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.” – Celeste Headlee
Skill Three: Check in, Don’t Repeat
People who don’t feel understood will often repeat themselves to try to get the point across. This can come across as contemptuous and disrespectful. Rather than repeat yourself, check in with the listener.
Professional guides often do this. They share a story and then ask, “Do you have any questions about this?” Or “Is that clear?” They want to make sure the listener completely understands them before they share more.
The Challenge of Improving Emotional Intelligence
Like improving your ability to read and write, one does not simply become emotionally intelligent overnight. You may read this article and think I need to get all this down right away. But trying to do so will be overwhelming and will cause you to give up.
Recognizing and normalizing where you are at this moment—whether an emotionally experience journeyman or novice—can help you focus on becoming good at one skill at a time, alleviating some of this self-criticism and enabling you to swiftly ascend to higher levels of emotional intelligence.
Over-practice These Intimate Skills
After practicing these skills for 15 minutes every other day for three weeks, Sammy feels more connected to Danny and Danny feels more open emotionally. Danny has also noticed that it has improved his ability to build better work relationships as a marine biologist. In fact, he is closer to getting one of his major projects funded because he listens in order to understand his funders’ concerns, rather than listening solely to prepare for rebuttal.
Emotionally connecting conversations during the grind of daily life is a vaccine for the virus of emotional disconnection.
- I love this quote: “Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They
see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home
with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds.” – Charles Caleb Colton ↩
- As Mark Manson puts it, “ Healthy love is based on two people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.” ↩
- Celeste Headlee talks about this in her TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” ↩
- Open-ended questions come from therapeutic backgrounds and, to my knowledge, have been popularized by Dr. Gottman for couples to deepen their emotional connection. To learn more check out Dr. Gottman’s book What Makes Love Last? ↩
This post was previously published on kylebenson.net.
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