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How Can I Mend My Relationship? Why hearing is not the same as listening

How can I mend my relationship
I asked Adrian Blake my friend and co-author of our book “I Just Want to be Happy” to share some of his wisdom from his years of experience in counselling couples.

Communication is the golden key to a better relationship. Communication is as much about listening as talking.

And remember, hearing is not the same as listening.

Children with attention deficit disorder, for example, may have very good hearing but their listening capabilities are poor.

They find it difficult to attend to what is really being said, and subsequently communication and relationships are difficult.

Here is an example of an exchange between a couple who are hearing but not listening:

Karen: The house is a mess. Why don’t you ever clean up?
Jamie: You can talk, you left it in a state this morning. There was loads of washing up in the sink. Anyway, what do you think I’ve been doing all day? I have my own work to do.
Karen: That’s not the point. You have more time than I do. It only takes a few minutes just to do a bit to help. You never do anything. It’s typical.
Jamie: I don’t do anything to help? If it wasn’t for me we wouldn’t even be able to live here. Who do you think pays most of the bills?
Karen: The bills! For heaven’s sake don’t talk to me about bills…

Here we see an argument rapidly starting to escalate. In the end, when the shouting stage is reached, one or the other will depart the scene, possibly slamming a door.

There is no conclusion, no resolution to the issue. Instead there is an open wound. Nothing is healed. Neither is really listening to the other because each is too busy thinking what they are going to say in reply.

Both are intent on defending their position at all costs, and launching counter-attacks. It starts off as a skirmish and escalates into warfare.

So how can they get a better result? Let’s replay it, but differently:

Karen: The house is a mess. Why don’t you ever clean up?

Notice how Karen feels angry and is taking one example – ‘the house in a mess’ – and accusing Jamie of not ever cleaning up. Karen wants to be heard but suspects that won’t happen, so is making as big an impact as possible to try to force Jamie to really listen.

Karen wants her feelings acknowledged, to be valued.

Importantly, this does not mean Jamie has to agree Karen is right. But for there to be progress, it does mean that Karen must feel listened to.

Jamie: (different response) It sounds like you feel really upset? Like perhaps you feel I don’t care enough about you or the house?

Here Jamie is reflecting back to Karen what he senses Karen is feeling. By doing this, Jamie is providing evidence that Karen is being listened to. Evidence carries weight. Jamie is saying in effect that he can see Karen’s feelings are real.

Jamie also takes it a stage further by responding with questions. This invites Karen to respond, so Karen gets the message that Jamie really wants to hear what she has to say.

This approach is likely to get a very different response from Karen. Compared to the “That’s not the point. You have more time than I do….” response there is likely to be a calmer, less retaliatory response.

Now that Karen feels listened to, there is less need for her to feel angry or to shout.

So K’s response might now be:

K: Well, yes, I do sometimes feel you don’t care enough about me or what I want.

(Still some anger, but less of it. Being listened to starts to defuse the anger. It starts to open things up. There is the beginning of communication).

So J might now respond:

J: Maybe it’s not just me not doing enough in the house, but it seems to you that I don’t value you enough either?

(Again J reflects back and again by using a question invites a response from K).

There are no accusations so there is no need to defend or counter-attack. We see the beginning of hope for this relationship. It will need practice and support from a third party, e.g. a counsellor, but it can be the start of something different and better.

Bear in mind, most partners do not want vengeance. They want to be heard,  listened to, to be valued, basically to love and be loved. As ex-Labour Minister Claire Short once said: “We’re all searching for love. Some of us are wise enough or lucky enough to find it”.