When conflict arises and couples are feeling stressed, one of the first things that can disappear is the ability to listen to and hear each other. Part of the reason listening becomes more difficult is that, as our nervous systems start to escalate, we tend to move into fight/flight/freeze mode, filtering out most of what our partners are saying in favour of our worst assumptions and interpretations. No wonder it’s so easy to skip listening and go straight to defending, attacking, and blaming. It can also be tempting to move straight to problem-solving, in hopes that a quick solution will make the discomfort of conflict go away. Problem-solving is certainly an important step in conflict resolution, but it is difficult to do effectively without both partners feeling listened to and heard. Learning to tolerate discomfort, while listening to each other’s points of view, is an essential, though often difficult step, toward de-escalating and resolving conflict.
Because listening can be tough, especially during conflict, it’s a great skill to practice with your partner on a regular basis when things aren’t so stressful. As the listener, you can increase your ability to remain curious, without becoming defensive or judgmental. And by listening to your partner you are giving them a pretty rare gift. As the one being listened to, you can practice sharing how you feel or how your are perceiving a situation, without moving into accusations or blame.
If you are curious, give this 5 Minute Listening Experiment a try. Set a time aside and decide who will talk and who will listen. Set an alarm for 5 minutes, and then switch roles. Initially it’s best to stick to topics that are not too sensitive.
- Pay attention to when you are truly feeling curious and when you are feeling defensive or judgmental. Notice any differences between these experiences.
- Notice how strange it can feel to simply listen and not respond or try to problem-solve.
- Remember that your partner is only sharing how he or she sees or feels about something. It’s only one perspective.
- Listening does not mean you have to agree with what your partner is saying. It does show that you are curious to know more about why your partner feels the way he or she does.
- Try imagining that your partner is a stranger on a plane telling you about his or her experience.
- Its a real gift to talk about your experience without interruption, so take advantage of the opportunity to openly and honestly express how you are feeling or perceiving a situation. Be careful not to move into blaming or accusing.
- Once the 5 minutes is up, thank your partner for listening.
Life is busy and it would be unrealistic to expect couples to devote endless hours to just talking and listening. The good news is that this skill can be practiced in a very short period of time. Why not give it a try and see?