Relationships and Courageous Conversation: Active Listening
As I mentioned in my blog post last week, I’m embarking on a new series about relationships and courageous conversation. As a couples therapist, life coach, and relationship consultant, I can tell you that courageous conversation and authentic communication is the key to successful relationships. One major component of courageous conversation is the ability to use active listening while communicating.
What do I mean by active listening? In its simplest form, actively listening means that when another person is talking, you are actively engaged in actually listening to what they are saying and the message they are trying to convey. You are not just waiting for them to shut up, so you can talk and say what you want to say. Although it sounds simple in theory, this is one of the biggest reasons communication breaks down in relationships, and it is the number one reason people end up seeking couples therapy or marriage counseling. We are often quite reactionary to things, and we want to make sure we are being heard. This is especially true if we feel attacked, or if we feel like we have to defend ourselves.
In relationships, we are not always going to agree on everything or do everything they way our significant other would like. So how do we learn to communicate about these differences without creating combustible interactions? We always have a choice how we respond to any given situation, and the ability to control our reactions is a very important component of actively listening. This leads to empathy which is also a huge part of active listening, but remember it is a two way street. It requires us to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, and imagine where they are coming from based on their perspective not on our own. It’s not easy to hear difficult information, but if we take some of the blaming and shaming out of the picture, it does bring the intensity down which allows us to truly communicate and connect with each other in a vulnerable and authentic way.
I love giving practical examples of how you can apply things to your life. If you feel like the communication is breaking down in your relationship, there are some ways to turn it around. It will take time and commitment and practice, but it is possible.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to schedule some time with your significant other to have a courageous conversation. There is a time and a place to discuss difficult topics, and it’s often a better idea of schedule some time rather than just springing it on them when you think of what you want to say.
The goal is to create a balanced conversation where both people can discuss their struggles or issues or problems in a calm environment. In preparation for this courageous conversation, you will both have some time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. It may be helpful to write a few things down in preparation for the courageous conversation. That way, in case emotions get high, you have some notes to refer to and you are able to make sure you are communicating what you are intending to communicate. Remember that the goal of courageous conversation is for both people to be heard and understood.
I want you to take turns sharing your feelings. When it’s your turn to share, I want you to be direct and specific. Identify what you are feeling and try to phrase things using and “I-statement” rather than a “you-statement”. This type of talking takes some practice, and it is likely to feel a bit strange or awkward at first, but it is so effective in helping couples learn how to discuss things without fighting.
Here is an example. Let’s say you come home all the time to a messy kitchen with dishes in the sink, and you have to spend 30 minutes cleaning before you can start working on dinner. How could you communicate this frustration to your significant other in a way that they will hear your message clearly without getting defensive? Maybe your gut reaction is that you want to react in the moment and say something like, “Why didn’t you do the dishes?” or “Don’t you see the mess in the kitchen?”. Can you see how those questions would make the other person feel attacked or feel like they need to be defensive?
Now, I want you to imagine a different way of conveying the same thing during your courageous conversation, but I want you to turn the questions of blame into an “I-statement”. Could you say something like, “I really feel overwhelmed when I come home after a long day to a sink full of dishes…” Notice how different that sounds? Instead of blaming your partner for not doing something, you own your feelings and communicate your experience from your point of view.
So, here’s where the actively listening becomes so important for success in changing the communication pattern in your relationship. Once you have said your “I-statement”, your partner needs to take a second to fully comprehend what you are saying, and they are not to respond back defensively. Instead, I want them to tell you what they are hearing you say, or I want them to ask clarifying questions if they need more information about what you’re feeling to make sure they understand. This is the core of active listening. Being heard, really truly heard can be such a healing experience, and because we are taking the blaming and shaming out of the picture, it is easier for the receiver to actually hear your message. Once you’ve had a chance to share your feelings, I want you to switch roles. Now your partner has a turn to say how they feel about something using an “I-statement”, and I want you follow the same guidelines they did with you in response to them.
Like I said earlier, it will likely feel strange to do this activity at first, but we are working on bringing down the tension in the communication within the relationship by removing the shaming and blaming. We are allowing space for both people to express themselves. If all we ever do is react and argue from a defensive point of view, no one in the relationship is feeling that they are being heard. I have never had this not be a success when implemented into a relationship, and I encourage you to give it a try. Schedule no more than 30 minutes to start off, and see how it feels to start changing the communication dynamic in your relationship. Take note of how it feels to be heard, even if nothing is being solved yet.
I do hope this has given you an idea of how to start working on the communication in your relationship by using active listening. I’m excited to continue this series on relationships and courageous conversation, so be sure to check back next week for the next installment.
If you are interested in setting up an appointment for therapy, life coaching, or consulting or if you would like more information about ways to develop healthy courageous conversations in your life and relationships, you can call my office directly at 314-485-9189 or feel free to send me a message. My direct email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can also follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more life and relationship tips!
A reminder if you are local to the St. Louis area and interested in attending my next Therapy Thoughts Workshop, I will be discussing the process of Self Acceptance and Overcoming Rejection. The next workshop will be at The Bike Stop Cafe in Chesterfield next Wednesday, June 19, 2019 from 7:30pm-8:30pm. It is $5 to get in, and this gets you $2 off any drink of your choice as well as entry into the attendance raffle drawings. I hope to see you there!
My Therapy Thoughts podcast will be re-launching very soon. We met last week to get some things finalized, and it will be available in both audio and visual formats. I am looking forward to having this up and running again, and I’ll have more information as we get closer to the re-launch. Make sure you are following my social media platforms and make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel, so you will be able to watch all the episodes!