"How can I learn to communicate better? ...Obviously what I’m doing isn’t working.”
This is one of the top questions that gets asked by my clients in session. They come to therapy dissatisfied, frustrated, unhappy, at their wits end. They wonder how they can change their husband to see positive emotional change in their life.... and then a lightbulb goes off: wait! first I might need to change something I’m doing... is that a crazy thought?!
To which I respond, Nope, not crazy!
To enact real change in a relationship dynamic first you must change something about what you are bringing to the table. Or, to put it another way, “change the song and you change the whole dance”, (relationship expert Esther Perel). In this case, the song is how you and your husband listen and respond to each other; the dance is the quality of your connection.
Yes, I help my clients change the song to their marriage. But what I also help with is understanding how they can effectively communicate their needs in a relationship. How do we do this? By learning about the power of requesting what they want from their husband up front, rather than harboring criticism and resentment later. This work is highly effective and is adapted from and informed by the relational approach of marriage and family therapist Terrence Real.
Today I’m going to talk about the role of listening in our relationships. So if you've ever said:
"He just doesn’t listen!” or "I feel like I'm talking to a wall."
"There’s no point in talking to him, all he does is counter with his own story.”
then this blog post is for you. And yes, the result from these interactions is that you feel totally unsatisfied and unheard. This can ultimately break down the strength of connection in any relationship.
It’s true that the way we listen, and the way others listen to and respond to us, can have a big impact on our satisfaction in our relationships. And that without learning better listening skills, you and your partner may remain lonely and disconnected. So whether you’re seeking to improve your marriage, your connection with a parent, or with friends, read on to learn what types of listening exist and how to improve this basic skill to have more fulfilling and harmonious relationships.
TIP ONE: IDENTIFY AND RAISE AWARENESS
What type of listener are you?
There are three types of listeners:
1) Empathetic listeners: “I am so sorry that happened to you! That sounds terrible.”
2) Sharing listeners: “you know, the same thing happened to my sister's friend and let me tell you, it was just awful! What happened to HER was..."
3) Problem solving listeners: "Have you thought of doing it this way?" "Have you tried..?"
Now take a moment to think (honestly!) about what type of listener are you? How do you usually respond when someone discloses something to you?
Its essential that you consider what type of listener the speaker actually NEEDS in that moment. Are they looking for information? Just an open ear and support? To know they aren't alone?
How could gaining awareness of your own tendency to respond help you to better connect with others? The way that you listen can be a hugely important part of what you bring to your own relationship dynamic.
What type of listener is your significant other? (your husband, partner, or other person with which you're experiencing this issue, such as your mother, sister, friend)
Use the same three listening styles listed above. Think back to a time where you recently shared something important with this person.
What was their response? What was your resulting feeling? Was it helpful or satisfying? Dissatisfying and unhelpful? Did it make you shut down, get emotional, or turn away? Did it make you want to share more? Not share?
The most common thing that creates discord between two people is not feeling truly seen and supported in a close relationship. And this happens because what you receive does not send you the message that the other person is truly hearing or acknowledging you.
It is likely that the type of listening you need from your husband/mother/friend doesn't match with the type of listening you receive.
Am I on to something? Onward!
STEP TWO: COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS
Perhaps you tell your spouse about your totally exhausting day battling your teenager's moody outbursts, and his response is "mmm...oh man... today in my board meeting, I couldn't believe what Randy said! And in front of the C suite guys! He goes...(blah blah blah)."
Or, as I also see often in my practice, you and your husband enter into a zone of some hot button topic in your marriage. You let your real emotions fly, hoping he'll sit down next to you and say, "I'm sorry, what can I do?" but what you get back is... A hesitant stare, then maybe, ".... you kinda seem upset a lot lately... I think if you put the kids to bed earlier you wouldn't be so stressed all the time."
This is where the hard work comes in that often gets a boost from the help of a trained professional. What I’m going to propose to you is one of the only ways to truly get your needs met in your communication:
You need to ask up front for the other person to give you what you’re looking for.
It might sound like this: “hey, I had a crappy day today with the kids. I'm feeling kind of resentful that I had to handle it all, and I really want to tell you about it but I don’t want suggestions of things I could have done: I just really need you to join with me in how hard it was so I can just get it off my chest.”
“Well, Emmie flipped a shit on me, and I felt like the worst parent ever and....."
“Wow, honey, that does suck. Emmie can be so moody lately. It’s exhausting. It’s hard to just let it roll off when the explosions trickle into the rest of your day.” (empathetic listening and response, putting self in other’s shoes)
“Yes, exactly! And then I felt like the rest of my day was all downhill from there...”
See how that interaction was different? It's as simple as saying, "Hey, this is what I need right now. Can you give that to me?" And allowing your partner to try their hand at it.
They might not do it perfectly the first time, but that's why you help them understand how to give you what you need. You keep tweaking things in the moment to help them understand what it sounds and feels like to have the type of interaction you're looking for. The one that would satisfy you, make you feel heard, and help you feel connected.
And here's one last take away gift. If you (or your spouse) make no other change, do this:
Acknowledge the emotional reality of what the other person just said to you BEFORE continuing on with your response.
If you can practice this in your life, and if you can help your most important others understand the importance of this for you, you will be well on your way to improving the quality and satisfaction of your communications.
You deserve to stop feeling stuck and start feeling more effective and empowered! If you need more help, support, or tools in your tool belt, click the consultation button on www.laurendrago.com to schedule your complimentary 15-minute phone call, or call me at 860-339-6515 to learn about how we can work together to change the dynamics in your life that aren't serving you.
Lauren L. Drago, MSEd, LMHC, LPC is the founder of Lauren Drago Therapy in Old Saybrook, CT and in greater CT, NY & PA. She specializes in working with smart, insightful and capable women to overcome stress, anxiety, loss of identity, self-limiting beliefs, perfectionism, marriage strain, and the pressure of "trying to do it all." Lauren has a passion for helping others to achieve the happy, fulfilling, productive, and meaningful life they deserve by changing how they experience and understand their world. She believes that every woman can and should live out her personal definition of her own best life. Follow Lauren on Facebook, and call (860) 339-6515 to schedule your free initial consultation.