Relationship Help | “My partner says that I don’t listen” | how to meet the emotional needs of your partner

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I am going to talk to you about what you should be paying attention to and what you should not be paying attention to while trying to become a better listener in your relationship.

 

What you should not be doing if your goal is to be a good empathetic listener

 

1.) Do not look for ways to fix the problem.

  • This is patronizing and will leave the listener feeling misunderstood; we are generally looking for support and not guidance when we seek out an empathetic ear. If someone wants your opinion they will clearly ask for it… it is best not to assume that they are asking you to fix a hardship they are dealing with. (You are ‘fixing’ things in a way by simply listening empathetically – this is what they want).

2.) Do not think about your response while the person is talking.

  • This leaves the person feeling frustrated, rushed, flustered and as if they are not being listened to (as they aren’t being listened to).

3.) Do not look for inconsistencies in the story line.

  • This will make your partner feel as though they need to edit their words in their head and doing so with impact their ability to authentically express themselves. This also creates a dynamic where the plot is given far more importance than it deserves… it is the expression and not the precision of the storyline which is most important.

4.) Do not respond with explanations as to why they are wrong (and you are right). To not try and rationalize your partners emotional experience.

  • Being an empathetic listener allows your partner to share and to heal by allowing a space for an emotion to be expressed and understood… the speaker receives clarity and feelings of security from your empathy. Being right is irrelevant… your partner feels the way that they do despite your attempt to correct his/her perception. It is irrational and unhelpful to suggest to your partner that they should feel or perceive differently – for one, you are suggesting that perceptions and emotions are objective and consistent (which is not true) and two, you are discounting a perception that was already made and you are discounting an emotional disposition that is already present.

5.) Do not offer them an alternative way to perceive the situation and do not offer forced or contrived optimism.

  • This belittles their subjective experience and is generally both annoying and aggravating. An ability to reflect on their experience so as to come to a place of resolve is the speakers goal… you can help them by listening and reflecting their experience. People do not find it helpful to be forced towards a new perspective, instead they prefer the safety of your nonjudgmental ear… in this safety they will often find the optimism themselves. Forced optimism is different than authentic encouragement… gently saying that you are there for them or that you will support him/her until things are ok, is perfectly fine.

6.) Do not respond with defensiveness. If the narrative is about you it is important that you display an understanding of the person’s position as opposed to quickly defending yourself.

  • When you defend you put the attention on yourself… to be direct, defensiveness is rather selfish and it is horribly detrimental to your own self growth.  You tell the listener that your own emotional reaction to the speaker’s narrative is more important than his/her emotions. As opposed to supporting your partner you are essentially saying, “No, support me now and please enable me to not change by taking back everything that you constructively have said about me that makes me feel the slightest bit uncomfortable.” When you are being defensive you are focusing all your attention and energy on yourself as opposed to offering support and understanding to your partner.

7.) Do not counter critique, use tangents, or otherwise change the subject.

  • Allow the focus to stay on your partner… bringing up other issues will confuse the interaction and will distract you both from getting your needs met. When you counter critique (ex. Please put your dishes away,” is responded with the counter critique, “well you’re not perfect, you are the one wasting all our money on shoes.”) you essentially say that your partners feelings are invalid because you also have feelings (this doesn’t make sense if you spell it out). As the listener your job is to listen… at a later time you can have your space to be the speaker.

8.) Of course do not be contemptuous, slanderous, cuttingly witty, or mean. Do not use verbal aggression to attempt to steal power from the speaker.

  • Even as adults we do find ourselves engaging in rather immature behaviors. Being mean is a poor way of saying, “I am overwhelmed by what you are saying and feel the need to attack you to get you to stop.” Asking for space is perfectly appropriate if you need a bit of time to be fully available for your partner.

 

What you should be doing to be a good empathetic listener

 

1.) Clear your mind and focus all you attention on your partner.

2.) Pay attention to your partner’s non- verbal language and keep eye contact to the degree that makes the speaker feel comfortable.

  • Eye contact ensures that you stay present with the conversation and there is a plethora of information that is transmitted while looking into someone’s eyes.  The emotional experience of the speaker is far easier to deduce when you are focusing on their body language. Focusing on non-verbals dramatically reduces misunderstanding and helps the listener to avoid projecting their own emotional experience onto the speaker’s storyline. Quite simply you can see how they feel.

3.) When listening to your partner’s storyline you should primarily be attending to how they felt at the time of the story and how they feel right now as they are retelling the story.

  • Your partner wants your support and for you to be emotionally available, they desire for you to understand their emotional experience. It is rarely important that you understand the specifics of the plot (though you should pay some attention to the details as well.) to heal a person by listening, you must first be able to hear the emotional content even when it is not explicit.

4.) Acknowledge, accept, and validate your partners unique emotional experience.

  • The way that they feel is the way that they feel… it is never your job to try and change their felt emotional experience (though it ironically will change if you listen empathetically). People have a right to their subjective emotions and they do not necessarily choose their emotional reactions… validate their unique experience by allowing them to experience and express their unique truth. Accept that this is how they feel and allow them to feel that way by humbly noticing your judgments and labeling those judgments as objects of your own ego… this is not a time for your ego, so protect your partner (and yourself) from your judgments.

5.) Display your understanding by gently and unassumingly reflecting back the emotions that your partner has expressed.

  • This suggestion requires a bit of practice, so make sure that your partner is aware that you are working on being a better listener at a time of relative placidity – “I am trying to become a better listener so please be easy on me if I sound a bit inauthentic or like a parrot at first.” Example of reflecting – your partner says,” I had the worst day I arrived at our meeting thinking that today we were going to be talking about the turner property… when it was my time to talk I sounded like an idiot and my boss was clearly pissed.” – a reflection could be as simple as, “sorry honey that sounds really uncomfortable.” The goal of a reflection is to quickly show that you understand without distracting the speaker from their narrative.

6.) Be compassionate and offer them the felt sense of security that is the foundation of your relationship.

  • Often time the best things to do is to offer your partner a hug. Allow yourself to feel their pain while holding a firm understanding that this pain is not your pain. Non-verbal actions which display the strength and security of your relationship are often most helpful – your action depends on the tactile needs of your partner – some will like to be hugged, others will like a soft smile, and other will want you to hold their hand etc.

7.) Finally ask them if there is anything that they would like for you.

  • He/she may want your help, your opinion, your time, your arms etc. it is always best to ask as opposed to assuming.

 

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Talking with Teens– Try using authentic open-minded empathetic curiosity.

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Quick Summary: For a teenager, the brain development is at a stage where they are generally dichotomous thinkers (black and white thinking – you are right or you are wrong – no middle ground). The thinking patterns of this developmental stage can make teens difficult to converse with when there is a disagreement. I find four interaction strategies to be of paramount importance in such an instance. I use authenticity, open-mindedness, empathy, and curiosity – With sincerity, I ask clarifying question that have the sole intention of better understanding the teen’s individual opinion and feelings; at the same time I avoid trying to get the teen to arrive at a universal ‘truth’.

To answer the question regarding the elephant in the room the answer is – YES, there are many adults that are still stuck in using primarily dichotomous thinking, the difference is that most adults are at a stage of brain development that would allow them utilize more open-minded thinking patterns.

Part of normal development for humans is to go through different stages of brain development, which are all characterized by fairly universal thinking patterns depending on a person’s age. In the beginning of life we all think that we are quite literally the center of the world – we then become teens and start categorizing the world using dichotomous thinking (I like that person or I don’t like that person) – By the time a human is in their senior years many have reached a point of acceptance with the concept that any instance can be good and bad – its all relative, and interdependent (there is no good without bad – “I am good and bad at the same time”).

The most common dichotomies that I’ve heard expressed (and that I expressed myself in my teenage years – and admittedly after as well:)) are the following: I am either independent or I am not independent (and they generally want to believe that they are independent), If a rule is valid than it should apply to everyone the same (“I should not be in trouble for drinking because you drink too”), I am right or I am wrong, If I am right (about any part of the argument) than you are wrong, and If you misspeak or are incorrect about any part of the argument then you are wrong.

So what do you do when you are in involved in a conflict with a teen (he/she got caught engaging in unsafe behavior – or they disagree with a rule or a task that you assigned to them)?

Try Authentic Open-minded Empathetic Curiosity

Reasons for:

Authentic – This pertains to the empathy and open-mindedness that you will present. You can’t fake it – so choose the time for your interaction wisely – such as when you feel like you are in control of your emotions. Try reminding yourself that your brain functions differently and look at the interaction as a unique chance to better understand the teen’s dichotomous thinking stage that you went through yourself in your teens.

Open-minded – If you approach the interaction with the belief that what the teen has to say is absolutely valid in some way or another then you will encourage the teen to express him/her self with greater depth and with less guarded emotions. Emotions are very important – If a teen believes that you are honestly listening (not being defensive) and that you are not openly threatening their independence – then the positive emotions that they hold for you will have a better opportunity to impact their decisions. (Remember the dichotomous thinking – “if you don’t listen to me – I don’t listen to you.”)

Empathetic – Try walking in their shoes and to honestly try and feel what they are going through. It can be hard being a teen and sometimes, if you listen empathetically, you might see that though their story line is unsafe and somewhat irrational – it does make a bit of sense given the way that they think.

-ex. “mom I had to get in the car with Dave even though he had been drinking cause if I didn’t he would have gone off with some other girl and besides, the police were coming and they always give out tickets to the kids that are left behind.” Now it might not be possible for you to accept that the teen was with a drunk driver, but it is possible for you to feel the teens fear around getting a tickets and to feel the teen’s insecurity about how she relates to the boy in the story.

Often the empathy you give will impact the empathy you will receive – so remaining empathetic increases the likelihood that the teen will feel your feelings concerning the decision that was made.

Curious – Though teens might be dichotomous thinkers they are neither stupid nor are they totally irrational. If you, as the adult, lecture too much they will often turn their focus on finding a fault in your logic (“but what if… no that is not true it was 10:00 and not 10:15 when I got home…”etc). If you approach the interaction with curiosity you will give the teen the opportunity to find the faults in their own logic… In my experience when a teen concludes by his or her self that they were wrong, the lesson is infinitely more valuable then when an adult tells them that they were wrong.

 

The most important aspect of this intervention: If this method increases the teen’s likelihood of simply talking with you then you have already done excellent work. The more that a teen engages with his/ her family the less likely they are to engage in many unsafe behaviors.

In in addition to these four interaction strategies I use emotional regulation and my understanding of the difference between knowledge and understanding (these methods will be in a future blog).

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.