The power of really listening to each other

  • May. 6, 2011 3:00 p.m.

Dear Paul,

I’m feeling exhausted with my husband. When we discuss almost anything these days we end up quarrelling until one of us gets fed up, quits and leaves the scene. It’s definitely wearing us out.


Lorna, in relationships there may be nothing more important to master than how we are with one another when we have our differences, hurts and grievances.

We are so quick to react and defend. Our personal reactions take over and cause real wear and tear.

Why do we do this?

Our brains are hard wired, at the slightest sense of feeling blamed, to deny and defend. It’s like two reaction machines going off fueled and driven to be right.

“David, I felt really uncomfortable at your mom’s tonight. I know she doesn’t like me.”

“Come on Sarah. You always say that. She went out of her way to be with you tonight.”

“If that’s going out of her way, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t like it at all.”

“My mom has tried to be friends with you since before we married. You’ve been so sensitive. You’re over reacting.”

“I think the problem here is I get no support from you.”

And just what are we being right about? Our view of “reality.”  Who has the correct “reality,” the true, the real and correct view of what’s happening — as though there is one.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What really happened? On it goes, back and forth — in our relationships, in our families, in our community, in our nations.

Let’s reflect a moment. Is there a right or wrong “reality?”

More likely, there is your interpretation or experience of what happened and their interpretation. There is no “right” or “wrong” reality, just the different positions from which we view.

The thing to notice when two people are working to be right about “reality” is that no one is listening.

Someone once said, “You have two ears and one mouth.” Doesn’t that tell us something?

I suggest we really don’t appreciate how powerful listening is in our relationships. How often things clear up when someone doesn’t counter or deflect, when someone listens with a commitment to understand.

So Lorna, you want a fresh start with your partner? Try this:  When you sense differences and conflict, begin by offering your partner your open and curious listening.

How many of us have the willingness to listen to someone this way, especially when they are upset with us or it’s close to home. That’s the big one isn’t it?

Being still and listening to the other when they are upset with us? These moments definitely challenge for us all.

Here’s a suggestion. Agree with your partner to have only one person upset at a time. The other listen. If your partner is troubled and voicing their upset, then you take it on to listen.

Give yourself over to really seek to understand how it is for them. When they are upset, see if you can stay open and present.

If you are upset invite them to listen for you that way.

When you’re listening, don’t try to fix anything. Or change anything. Or get off the hook or make it better. Or teach them anything. Don’t give advise. Simply listen to their experience and reflect the understanding you’ve gained by your listening.

“David. I felt really uncomfortable at your mom’s tonight. I know she doesn’t like me.”

“You sound hurt Sarah. What happened tonight with mom? When did you feel that way?”

Being curious, being with your partner with nothing to defend, staying open in the desire to understand — now that’s unique.

I’m told in aboriginal communities when they gather in healing circles, the one speaking has hold of the “talking stick.”

No one interrupts until he or she has completely finished, until he has said all he has to say, then he passes the stick to another. He has said it all. He is finished. He is complete. He feels heard. And then it is another’s turn.

Our listening for one another is powerful, an amazing gift we have to give one another.

Our open listening is the foundation for being related and for intimacy. Take this on and see the difference it makes.

— Paul Beckow is an individual, marriage and family therapist on the West Shore. See



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