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You Just Don't Understand!

Here's how to be a better listener.

Key points

  • Emotional intimacy requires understanding and being understood by the people we love.
  • Denying someone’s experience never works.
  • Not listening is a kind of emotional stinginess that will crack the foundation of any relationship.
Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash
Listening is the most important relational skill.
Source: Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash

Feeling understood is the bedrock of emotional intimacy. All relationships—couples, parent-child bonds, friendships, even work relationships—can withstand a lot of pressure if each person feels that the other is invested in understanding their point of view.

Listening in our most important relationships is usually difficult for one of two reasons: We think we know what the other person will say, so we confidently and misguidedly fill in the blanks. Or we don’t want to hear what they’re going to say and stop listening to defend ourselves and tell them why they’re wrong.

Denying someone’s experience never works. The old cliche is “actions speak louder than words.” And, of course, the way someone acts is essential for communication. But words matter too.

Sometimes people try to use words first to alert us to a problem, but we miss it because we don’t want to hear the words and because our partner/child/friend seems OK most of the time. Then, once a problem is amplified—say your partner is going to leave, or a friend starts avoiding you, or your kid has stopped sharing details of their lives with you—it comes as a shock. But really, you had plenty of warning.

Emotional intimacy requires understanding and being understood by the people we love. Not listening, not seeking to know better, and not paying close attention to our significant relationships is a kind of emotional stinginess that will crack the foundation of any relationship.

Here are some tips to help you listen attentively.

1. Follow the old Stephen Conway rule: “First seek to understand, then to be understood.”

Think of this as standing shoulder to shoulder with your partner and trying to see what they see. Understanding is not the same as agreeing or capitulating. There will be time for your side of the story. But by rushing to insist on your point of view, you are cutting off an opportunity to know your partner better. Often just understanding where they are coming from will resolve a dispute.

2. Ask good questions.

If your partner keeps saying the same thing repeatedly, it’s because they don’t think you understand them. Assume this is true and work to expand your understanding. Ask open-ended questions like, “What was that like for you?” and “Can you say more about that?” Then say, “This is what I’m hearing. Am I getting it right?” Good questions and staying with your partner’s experience until you genuinely understand it will go a long way to helping them feel aligned and connected.

Being curious includes checking your assumptions. They might not feel a certain way based on your past experiences with them. They probably don’t think about a situation the same way you do. Don’t assume you already know. Ask questions.

3. Follow up.

After a particularly painful or contentious conversation, we might think, “Phew! That’s over.” We happily shelve the topic, pat ourselves on the back for doing a good job listening, and hope we never have to talk about that terrible thing again. That isn’t how it works.

Almost any critical topic requires a series of conversations, not just one big conversation. Making important decisions, recovering from a betrayal of any kind, grappling with unresolved differences—these conversations take stamina. A great way to signal to your partner that you’re committed to a deeper understanding is to follow up afterward and check-in to see how they’re feeling and if more has come up for them.

People who want a successful relationship actively seek ways to better understand their partner’s point of view. Listening is just paying close attention. As Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

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