While working with couples in my marriage therapy practice, I’ve recently heard a number of guys claim they are very good listeners, which makes the wives burst out in laughter.  It’s really great these husbands can make their partners laugh, but unfortunately, that wasn’t their goal. This means, according to their partner, they must suck at listening.

Whenever I hear someone claim to be a good listener I have an Aladdin moment. In the Disney cartoon the King says “The one thing I pride myself on, Jafar, is I’m an excellent judge of character,” which leads to Iago saying, “An excellent judge; yeah, sure… not!” Of course, instead of ‘judge of character’ what I hear is “An excellent listener; yeah, sure… not!” I especially like this because it’s a 90s movie with an 80s reference by saying ‘not’, which means I get to be out of date with two different decades being represented. That’s pretty impressive; you’re welcome.

When it comes to hearing the words their partner is saying, I’m sure these guys are really good, but that doesn’t make them a good listener. In fact, if you’re a couple in marriage therapy, there’s a 99% chance you both suck at listening to each other.

I know I’m not perfect at listening (although you’d have to hope I’m good at it when I’m a therapist), but it’s amazing how many people regularly make at least one of these eight key mistakes when listening to their partner:

  • They assume the other person is trying to hurt them: This leads to even innocent comments being taken as an insult and experiencing unnecessary hurt. If you’re not in a fight when people say things they don’t mean, you should never assume your spouse is trying to hurt you.
  • They are listening for words they can use to throw back in the partner’s face: This is frustrating because it has an ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ and ‘me against you’ feel. It’s like verbal dodgeball: You dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge (another 90s movie reference) in order to avoid the words you don’t want to hear and then grab what you can to hurl back at the person in hopes to knock them out.
  • They Try to Fix It: Unless people ask for your advice, it’s best to keep it to yourself and focus on helping the person feel understood.
  • They Boss You Around: We need to let people have their emotion. Men in particular are known for saying things like “Calm down,” “Relax,” “You’re overreacting,” and “This isn’t a big deal.” This is often the result of the listener being afraid of emotion and trying to reduce any sense of conflict, but it usually leads the other person to getting their backs up: “Don’t tell me to relax!” “This is a big deal; I’m not stupid!” “You don’t get it otherwise you’d know this was bad!” and “Don’t control me!”
  • They correct, negatively question, demand an example, or disagree with the other person: All of these make the other person feel put down like you think they’re stupid. Correcting a detail gets people’s backs up as does a question like: “Why would you think that?” Even a calm voice asking “What do you mean?” feels negative in a heated conversation. You need to validate the other person before you make a point or they’ll feel put down. This is why demanding an example frustrates the other person; they just want their feelings validated, and not to be interrogated.
  • They make assumptions or accusations: Asking good questions helps the other person feel cared about, and it helps prevent wrong assumptions.
  • They take things personally: Yes, it’s natural to take digs and nasty words from our spouse personally, but we shouldn’t if we want to be a good listener. We can either ignore the comments or clarify what we think we heard, but only in a non retaliating way. If you’re listening, it’s not about you.
  • They defend themselves: When people are angry, they don’t care why you did something; they want you to care they’re upset. Sure, when someone tries to punch us we need to block it to protect ourselves, but as soon as we swing back we are now in a fight, which typically escalates the violence unless we hit the other person so hard we knock him or her to the ground, but that leads to its own problems. The same happens when we try to explain what we did. Ultimately, the best way to block harsh words is to not “hear” them and instead try to consider what’s underneath the words. Don’t get caught on the surface of a fight; look beyond the surface to see what’s really going on. Typically the root is ‘I don’t feel safe or loved’. Address this and you avoid a fight.

Tip: When a spouse is attacking, the real message is usually: “I’m hurt and trying to express it.  Please care. Thus, the worst thing we can do is not let them express it.

So what is a good listener?

Simply put: A good listener is someone who helps the other person feel heard and have his or her feelings validated. It’s about hearing more than just words; it’s about hearing what the person is actually trying to say, and this is the challenge for most men. We need to go beyond the words to understand what’s behind them. Your partner isn’t crazy or stupid; he or she is just trying to express the hurt.

This week may you understand what’s behind the words in order to better understand what the person is trying to say. @Chad_being_rad (Click to Tweet!)

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**In improv they say ‘Yes and:’ and don’t ‘No and’ which shuts the person and scene down. Similarly, we need to ‘yes and’ in our conversations to keep them moving forward in a healthy way.

Ultimately, if our spouse is talking to us, we should be grateful because silent coldness is much worse in the long run. At least our spouse is still engaged with us and trying to make it better.

Chad David, MTS, MEd, MA, Rev, is an award winning therapist and published author who writes weekly blogs as a way to share the lessons he learns and is reminded of because we are all on a journey. He is a big fan of the power of humor (when appropriate) because he believes it helps people see the good in life, which adds to the healing.



Image courtesy of bruce mars.