3 Ways We Fail To Listen.

Image by David Robert Bliwas on  Flickr

Image by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr

The person you love the most is the hardest person to listen to in a fight.

If you've ever struggled in your marriage and thought, "How can he be so nice to his colleagues and talk to me like this?" then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

We think we listen, but we don't. We watch people "listen" on television shows and presidential debates, but what we're actually watching are one-way dialogues where no one listens vulnerably and with compassion. So we're programmed to think that listening is a one way street.

As long as I get what you're saying, then I'm listening.

If that's true, why is it that as soon as we react to what our partners say, offering a totally reasonable response, what we often hear is something like, "You're not listening to me!"

I've put together a small list of ways we don't actually listen in the hopes that we can make the basic ingredient of couple communication work more smoothly.

1. We forget to ask if we're listening.

Listeners don't tell their partners they're listening; listeners ask their partners if they're listening. If you're truly listening, then your spouse will tell you.

At the end of a long day when my wife and I get home, we're both exhausted, and both want the other to listen to us.

It takes more energy to share than to be shared to.

Sometimes, I'll get distracted by the news or a baseball game while she's telling me something about her day. Very gently, she'll place her finger on the mute button and wait for me to look up at her with a cute but expectant smile on her face.

This is a clear message that I'm not listening.

We need to be as good at asking if we're listening as our partners are at showing us we're not. If we can develop that skill, then the mute button won't even be necessary. Master these questions:

Did I hear you right?

Do I understand you?

Did I get it?

Use these questions in combination with number two, and you'll be on your way to changing your marriage moment by moment.

2. We don't repeat what we heard.

One of the most annoying things I ask my clients to do is repeat back to their partners what they heard from them. This isn't so hard when we're talking about pizza or dinner plans, but what makes it tough is when we get into conflict.

Our brains do funny things when we're in distress, especially when that distress becomes chronic and predictable.

Our own bodies work against us - secreting what I like to call the battle hormones - convincing us that rather than listen to a criticism, we should fight back and win at any cost. 

This is the opposite of what it means to listen well.

Sometimes listening well means letting down the defenses. One of the hardest things I have to convince folks is that it doesn't matter if you feel attacked. You need to listen; because the only way to disarm an attack is to understand its purpose.

So when your partner or spouse isn't doing their best job to soften her or his criticisms or attacks, you can do your best to listen well by repeating back what you heard.

This sends the message that you're invested - that you care - without you having to lose ground or agree with the attack.

3. We only appear interested.

I once heard a married couple who were also therapists give what I thought was some of the worst advice on listening, ever.

They reinforced the ancient idea that men and women have innately different capacities to listen. Women had higher emotional needs and men just want to scratch their crotches and watch football.

To deal with this, the husband of the pair said that as long as you are looking in the direction of your wife and nodding your head, this will satisfy her need to be heard.


This is a lie. It's not good enough that we pretend to listen. If you can't listen at any given moment, just be honest and say you can't listen. But show enough initiative to come back in 30 minutes and start the conversation equipped with the first two steps.

Great marriages exist between intellectual peers.

Your partner needs to feel like you care about what they face when they walk out the door, like you'll remember at least some of the details the next day. If you struggle to be interested in mechanical engineering, then do your own research on your own time to generate an interest.

It'll go a long way in about 3 hours when you're hoping you'll get lucky.

Dr. Mathis Kennington