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be a better listener

Turn toward your partner by being a better listener in your relationship..

Want to be a better listener in your relationship? In the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, we focus on building a solid base of friendship that allows the relationship to be stable over time. In this friendship base, we focus on knowing our partner well and turning toward and connecting with them.

When your partner makes a bid for your attention or connection, whether it is verbal or nonverbal, they are giving you the opportunity to connect and build trust. The majority of these bids usually occur in the small, everyday moments of our lives. Your partner may make a bid by calling your name, initiating a conversation, expressing a need, or feeling.

Paying attention to what happens when you make and/or receive bids is an essential skill in becoming a better listener in marriage. When you turn toward their bid, this means you engage and respond positively. This demonstrates that your partner is important and that they matter to you. In turning away, you might ignore their bid altogether. This implies that they aren’t very important to you at that moment. Aim to turn toward your partner as much as possible.

Here are some tips to help you turn toward your partner by being a better listener

By being a great listener, you are actually building trust and encouraging your partner to turn toward you-important components in a lasting relationship and a safeguard against betrayal. Here are some ground rules for being a great listener:

Questions are the answer

You can get the ball rolling by initiating with a question: such as “What happened in your day today?’” or “What is stressing you out right now?” or a forward-looking ’‘What are you looking forward to in the next week?”

Validate emotions and offer support

Let the other person know that their feelings make sense to you by saying, for example, “Yes, that is really sad. I would be upset, too,” or, “I can see why you’d be annoyed about that” or “I really feel for you”.

Don’t problem solve or side with the enemy

This is important and it’s a mistake many couples make. Problem-solving can come from a place of caring- you want your partner to feel better so you offer solutions. However, this can come across in the wrong way- often what they really want is for you to be on their side. Your partner might wind up feeling disrespected. Which is why it’s so important to not say anything that would come across as siding with the enemy. If they are complaining about their boss you wouldn’t say “Oh but I really like your boss, she’s so smart.” Even if you do like their boss, this is not the time to go there. Realize that you are on your partners’ side, so say “Wow that really is terrible, I can’t believe your boss said that.”

Don’t look for the “silver lining” by saying “At least…”

By doing this, you are minimizing their stress and pain. Instead, allow it to be what it is. By saying, “You got fired, but at least you still have a family who cares about you,” you are minimizing their suffering about the job loss. You can say, “This seems so difficult. I don’t know what to say,” or, “Thank you for sharing with me,” or, “I can see how hard this is for you.”

Reflect back what you are hearing

One way to empathize, and show that you understand and care is to follow the steps below:

  1. So, you are feeling: (happy, scared, lonely, etc.)
  2. About… (state the event, or circumstance related to the feeling)
  3. Because… (name the reason or belief that explains the feelings)
  4. And I can understand… why you feel a particular way. Or “That makes sense.”

More about being a better listener

Couples with healthy and stable relationships have developed a cognitive map of their partner’s world. These cognitive maps, or Love Maps, are created by asking open-ended questions such as, “How would you like your life to change in the next five years?” 

The point is to ask questions that deepen your understanding of the other person. “Did you call the plumber today?” is not a question that tells you much about your partner’s inner world. Mundane questions won’t help you be a better listener in marriage.

Instead, try asking, “If you had all the money in the world, what would your dream house be like?” Asking this sort of question, you’ll find out something entirely different about your partner.

Listening is facilitated by open-ended questions. Open-ended questions invite stories for answers—and layers of meaning within those answers that can help you understand the heart of who your partner is.

Asking an open-ended question is a key way to be a better listener in marriage. It shows genuine interest in your partner’s life and inner world.  But it’s important to remember the answer! The idea is to take the time to ask and get to know someone more deeply. Genuine curiosity is important in becoming a better listener in marriage.

When asking open-ended questions, it’s also important to be an active listener. Active listening means making eye contact, nodding, and attending to whomever you are talking to rather than paying attention to your phone or any other distraction.

Asking follow-up questions can help, so if they say they really like their job right now you can ask, “What is it that you like most about it?” or, “What is it about your job that feels most rewarding to you?”

Be a better listener in your relationship with bulleted questions

Want to be a better listener in your relationship? Use the bulleted questions and statement below to spark follow-up questions and further the conversation:

  • What is the best thing about this?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • What is it that you like about this?
  • Tell me more about that.
  • How do you feel about it?

When asking open-ended questions, it’s also an excellent opportunity to empathize with the speaker’s feelings.

If they say they are overwhelmed and anxious about an upcoming work project, you can say, “That sounds really tough,” or, “It makes sense that you’re feeling anxious.” Expressing empathy in this way also serves to validate your conversation partner. It’s a wonderful experience to be understood by your spouse.

Dr. John Gottman once said, “the first duty of love is to listen.”  And being a better listener in marriage will help you both experience a deeper intimate bond.