Written by Crystal Bradshaw, LPC, NCC, Gottman 7 Principles Educator
The way that we listen will dictate how we respond and what we will say.
I see so many unnecessary arguments evolve from one simple discrepancy between a couple: listening style.
Often, the speaker needs one type of listening from their partner, and usually the listening partner is not using that particular style in that moment and ends up responding to the partner with feedback elicited from their listening style.
This often takes the couple in another direction, away from the initial conversation to a different one filled with escalating emotions and hurt feelings.
The couple often use this event as "proof" that they can't get along, that their partner doesn't listen to and understand them, or that they don't know what their partner wants.
Here's what you need to know.
There are three listening styles. Empathic Listening, Problem-Solving/Fix-it Listening, and Shared Listening.
You just need someone to listen to you with empathy.
To use empathic listening you need to give your partner your full attention and understanding.
You experience situations from their point-of-view. When you can understand how something would impact them a certain way and why...that's being empathic.
Example: "That sounds exhausting. I can understand why you're so tired." "You sound frustrated. I think I would be too if I were in your shoes." "That sounds confusing. I can see why you would feel that way."
If a partner were to use problem-solving/fix-it listening in this instance, there would likely be emotional distancing or an argument. (You never listen to me. You just don't get it. You don't understand. You don't care.)
Women typically use, and want, empathic listening.
They tend to give an empathic response as well.
Women, be mindful of your empathic listening when it comes to your husbands. Yes, they need and want it, but often they operate from a problem-solving/fix-it listening style. This isn't to say they don't want or need empathic listening (they do and they greatly appreciate it), but make sure you respond empathically in the right context.
Problem-Solving / Fix-it Listening:
This is exactly what it sounds like. There's a stated problem that needs a solution. The exchange is meant to lead to a resolution, not a processing of feelings and emotions. It's not a sharing moment either, unless you are sharing how you solved a similar problem in the past.
Men typically provide problem-solving listening when women need empathic listening.
One reason they do this is related to emotions.
Culturally they are raised differently, and as a result, the world of emotions is not as familiar to them.
What is familiar to them is problem-solving.
So they offer what they are skilled at, what they are comfortable with.
If something is bothering their wife, they want to fix it.
Sounds like what it is.
"Oh, you have to have knee surgery? I had that same surgery last year." And then you tell them about your experience.
That is shared listening.
Example: A mother is emotional because her child is starting Kindergarten. She tells a friend she can't stop crying about it. Yes, this can be an empathic listening moment, and you can weave that into it, but it can also be a shared listening moment. "I understand what you're going through. I cried the night before mine started Kindergarten and I spent the whole day nervous. I couldn't wait to pick him up and hear about his day. Once we settled into a routine, and once I realized how much fun he was having, it became easier for me. It was hard in the beginning because it was a new phase of our lives, and it took some getting used to, but we adjusted and are doing great."
Here's a real session example of a couple with 2 different listening styles:
Wife came home from work and wanted to vent about an ongoing work related stressor. She was looking for empathic listening and instead received problem-solving listening from her husband.
She felt like he didn't understand what she was going through. For him, this wasn't his first time hearing about this issue. It's an ongoing problem he has heard her complain about before. He previously offered advice. On this occasion he did the same thing, but with tone and annoyance in his voice.
"Look. I told you what you need to do. If you aren't going to listen to me I don't want to hear it."
The wife was looking for empathy, something along the lines of, "Gosh, that sounds like a crappy work environment to be in. I hate that you have to deal with this."
Had she said to her husband, "Hey, I'm having a challenging time at work with this difficult situation and I don't know what to do. What are your thoughts?"
That's asking for advice, that's asking for problem-solving listening.
Sometimes, when problem-solving listening takes place in a empathic or shared listening context, it could be linked to avoidance of emotion.
Some people are not as comfortable in the world of emotions, and by providing problem-solving listening, they are trying to reduce their discomfort.
For the husband in this example, part of his frustration was in hearing that the issue wasn't resolved, but more importantly he was frustrated that his wife had to deal with this situation that caused her a lot of upset. He wanted the problem to stop for her.
The problem was literally something he could not fix himself, so by telling her what to do he was trying to get it resolved from the outside.
Fix the issue and the problem my wife has will go away. Logically that makes total sense, but his wife was looking for empathy not a resolution.
2 Steps to Reducing Unnecessary Conflict in Your Marriage
1. Request the listening style you need.
If you need empathic listen, let your partner know.
"Hey. I've had a bad day and I just need you to listen."
If you need problem-solving listening, let your partner know.
"I'm struggling with this particular issue and would love your input on what you think might help."
These are both direct and to the point. You're coming straight out and telling your partner what you need from them, what will help you in that moment.
If your partner knows what you need, usually they will be willing to provide that.
2. Ask what listening style they need.
Until you become skilled enough to assess the situation on your own, just ask your partner what kind of listener they need you to be in that moment.
There is nothing wrong with asking.
It shows you care and you want to be the partner they need in that moment.
If you catch yourself falling back into your old listening pattern simply say, "Hey, I think we got away from the listening style. Let's start over and try this again."
New ways of communicating will not magically take hold over night. You have spent years communicating one way, so to change that pattern will take conscious effort daily. The more you do it, the easier it will become.
By putting in a deliberate effort to alter your communication style in the moment, you are rewiring your brain.
Every time you actively work on it, you are creating closer and faster connections in your brain for this new behavior to become more automatic.
Just like any new skill, it will take effort, practice, and time. However, it is well worth it, because developing new listening skills will definitely help nurture your marriage today and in the future.
Photo Credit: Ashley Swenson Photo
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