Relationship Communication: How to Talk So That Your Partner Will Listen

The guidelines for being a good listener are not just for men. These guidelines for listening and communication apply to both men and women, straight and gay, and for friendships as well.
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Well, my recent post ("Why Men Don't Listen to Women") on HuffPost drew a lot of comments. The article was a follow-up to an earlier posting on "What Not to Say to a Loved One Who is Upset." In the earlier article I suggested some simple guidelines for being supportive -- like not jumping in with problem-solving too quickly, not demanding rationality all the time, validating and respecting feelings, exploring a range of feelings and giving time for your partner to express himself or herself. For some reason, many men jumped all over this and thought that this would make them less manly, "wusses," weaker, doormats, it would reinforce whining and would sacrifice any opportunities to deal with things rationally. My thoughts about "what not to say" apply to both men and women, but some men thought it was going to take away something that the male role holds dear.

Many men thought I was doing a "hit job" on men and blaming men for every problem in a relationship. Actually, I specifically indicated that neither men nor women are to blame -- but sometimes some men may have certain attitudes about communication and emotion that may get in the way. It was interesting to me that a lot of the men who responded did express the very beliefs that I was targeting -- views that women are "too emotional," they just go on and on forever, they can't think rationally, and that they are largely a burden. These misogynist beliefs must make it difficult to have an equal and meaningful relationship with mutual respect -- but, hopefully, some readers will think about things differently. Others will not and will continue to defend their position with sarcasm, name calling and high-fiving each other. Sounds like a lot of fun. Won't get you very far. Certainly, won't appeal to women, guys!!!

The guidelines for being a good listener are not just for men. These guidelines for listening and communication apply to both men and women, straight and gay, and for friendships as well. Good communication and good listening are also part of negotiating in business, as well. And, of course, rationality and problem-solving are also important. (It's ironic that some people might think that I don't care about rationality and problem-solving. After all, I am a "cognitive therapist"!) If you want to get a sense of the irrational way that we can think about our relationships, check out my post, "The 12 Worst Relationship Mindsets." I try to describe a number of common negative patterns of thinking that are ultimately self-defeating and I suggest a few different ways to think about your relationship. You can be more rational about your irrational thinking.

Having made these observations, though, it's also important that when you are communicating to your partner -- and you want him or her to listen -- and respect you, then you should consider how you say what you say. Communication and listening is a two-way street. So how can you communicate better?

10 Secrets to Getting Heard:

  1. Pick the Right Time

Sometimes you think you need to be heard the minute you have a thought or feeling. But your partner might be wrapped up in something else at the moment -- the game, fixing dinner, trying to go to sleep, working on something, or just not in the right mood right now. Use your experience to tell you what is definitely not the right time -- for example, "big process discussions" are seldom helpful right before bed -- or the minute your partner walks in the door. If you start talking -- and he or she isn't listening -- then ask, "Is there a better time to talk?" And, if you are the listener, play fair -- give your partner a reasonable alternative. Don't use sarcasm or stonewalling.

  • Edit it Down
  • Many times you start talking and you just get carried away. Your partner is losing interest, drifting off, his third eyeball is rolling into his cortex. Nothing is getting through. OK. Maybe you need to edit what you say. Try to limit your comments to relatively clear and short sentences. Pause, ask for feedback, wait for your partner. Don't get on a soap-box and hold the floor. Make it more give and take. Think about what is essential and try to focus on that. One way of editing it down is to agree with your partner that there might be a reasonable period to spend on the topic -- for example, "Can we spend about 10 minutes talking about this?" That helps you focus on the essentials and gives your listener a reasonable time-frame.

  • Pause and Ask for Feedback
  • Sometimes as a speaker you will go on and on, without pausing. Perhaps you think that you need to stay on your topic so that everything is heard -- or you fear that your partner will jump in and take the floor and you won't ever get a chance to speak again. Slow it down, edit it down, and stop and ask for feedback. Make the communication two-way. If you feel your partner hasn't really heard what you are saying, then try asking, "Can you rephrase what I said?" Or, if you want your partner to help you think of things differently, you might say, "I wonder if I'm seeing things the right way here." Or, if you want problem-solving, you might say, "I wonder what I can do to make it work." Pause, reflect, ask for feedback.

  • Don't Catastrophize
  • Sometimes we think that the only way to get heard is to make everything sound awful. Sometimes that's a legitimate point of view, but if you make too many things sound awful you will lose your credibility. Try to keep things in perspective, try to stay with the facts, and try to keep things from unraveling. Keep your voice in a calm tone, don't get carried away. Slow it down, quiet it down. You will be heard more clearly with a softer tone. In fact, if you stand back and think it through, some of the things that you are talking about may be unpleasant, inconvenient, or simply a matter of opinion. But "awful" might be a bit extreme. Think it through and decide if it is really as awful as you think and feel it to be.

  • Don't Attack
  • Your listener is not likely to be a good audience if your discussion is a series of attacks and criticisms. Labeling your partner ("Idiot," "Moron," "Big Baby") or over-generalizing ("You always do that") is going to be a turn-off. This doesn't mean you can't get your point across and assert yourself. It simply means that you need to communicate in a way that is not as hostile. Making suggestions for change ("It would be helpful if you cleaned up a bit more"), while giving credit for some positives ("I do appreciate your help with the shopping") can get you more attention and cooperation than out-right attacks ("You are the most selfish person I have ever known").

  • Tell Your Partner if You Want to Solve Problems or If You Want to Share Feelings
  • My experience is that sometimes we just want to vent our feelings, have a sympathetic ear from our partner. That's OK, but your partner needs to know where you are going with it. For example, it may be that you might want to divide it up -- a few minutes of venting and sharing and then either drop the topic or go on to problem-solving. I've found that a lot of people just want to be heard and cared for. Ironically, I used to jump in with rationality and problem-solving very quickly until I realized that some of my patients (and friends) didn't want that. They just wanted to explore feelings and feel supported. So, like a lot of "men" (or people overly-committed to rationality and problem-solving) I had to learn to give time and space for feelings. I have to confess that I was like a lot of the guys who have commented on previous posts -- thinking that this was a waste of time. I was task-oriented, committed to rationality, and focused on problem-solving. So it required a lot of discipline for me to step back. As I spent a bit more time validating and listening and supporting, I found that the people I was helping were more willing to hear my rationality and problem-solving when we got around to it. And, much to my surprise, some didn't need a problem to be solved. They needed someone to care about the fact they had a problem.

  • Listening Is Not Agreeing
  • Sometimes we have the belief that the listener should agree with everything we say and be just as upset as we are. That's the only way to show that he or she is really listening. Wrong. Listening is hearing, understanding, reflecting, and processing information. I can listen to your thoughts and feelings without agreeing with your point of view. You and I are different people. It doesn't mean I don't care for you if I don't agree with you. It means I am hearing you. But sometimes the speaker can attack the listener for not agreeing 100 percent. That seems unrealistic and unfair. We all need to accept the differences that make us unique. In fact, the differences can be opportunities for growth. When you talk to someone who understands you and cares about your feelings -- but doesn't agree with your interpretation of events -- it opens your mind to the fact that there is more than one way to think about things.

  • Respect Advice
  • If you are turning to your partner for support and advice you are likely to get feedback -- probably some advice. Now, you might be unfortunate and get sarcasm and contempt -- the predictors of divorce. But let's assume that your partner is trying to do what he or she can to be supportive -- but it's not exactly what you want. Maybe the advice is not helpful, maybe it's irrational. But if you want to be heard, you have to be willing to respect the advice-giver. You don't have to take the advice or like the advice. But if you are playing to an audience that you then attack you won't have an audience the next time around. Think of advice or feedback as information -- take it or leave it. But don't hit the other person over the head with it.

  • If You Describe a Problem, Describe a Solution
  • This may not be what you are ready for. As I said, you might just want to vent, share feelings, explore your thoughts. But I think it also makes sense -- some of the time -- to describe potential solutions if you describe potential problems. I actually love to jump to problem-solving (as I "admitted" earlier) but it may be premature with some people. But if you are a speaker you might consider this as an option -- describe a solution if you describe a problem. Your solution doesn't have to be an order to do something. It can be tentative, reasonable, one of several possibilities. In fact, if you begin thinking of the problem as something to solve, you might begin feeling more empowered. But it's your call if you want to go there now -- later -- or never.

  • Validate the Validator
  • One of the most helpful things that you can do as a speaker is to support the person who is supporting you. You don't want to be a downer and you don't want to act entitled to every minute of the other person's time. Think about it from their point of view. They are listening to you go on about something that is bothering you. Well, it may not be the most fun for them. But they are with you on this. Why not turn around and thank them for spending the time? Thank them for caring enough to listen and support you. Validate the validator.

    A caveat: I'd like you to keep in mind that good advice is gender-neutral. But if sex-typed thinking gets in the way, if sarcasm, contempt, stone-walling, attacking, and ridiculing are your games, you may be playing alone. And, for a long time.

    You decide what will work.

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