Your partner voices a complaint. How do you hear it? How do you respond?
Granted, it can be difficult to set aside one’s own needs or point of view in the middle of a disagreement. All too often defenses take over, and before you know it, you’ve found yourselves in an accusation-hurling contest. Maybe you’ve gotten good enough at listening to each other, so that you’re able to come to some kind of resolution before too much damage has been done. But even so, wouldn’t it be better to get to that point without having to go through the fight in the first place? To get there without shaming, disregarding, or misinterpreting one another?
The next time an issue arises, try using these techniques borrowed from Imago couples therapy.
And when it’s your turn to voice a complaint, stay with how the other person’s behavior – not their personal characteristics – has made you feel.
Simply stated, you just repeat what you heard your partner say, and ask if you’ve heard them accurately. Try not to paraphrase, or color it with your own interpretation. Your partner can then correct any misunderstanding. Repeat until both of you are satisfied that the message is clear. Beyond gathering information in order to fully respond to the issue at hand, this kind of questioning in and of itself shows that you’re interested. Both of you need to stay on topic; don’t allow other issues to come into the discussion. Save those for another time.
You don’t need to agree with your partner’s point of view. You simply have to agree that it makes sense, given the circumstances. You may have a completely different version of the situation, but again, that can wait. For now, imagine how you would react if you had no stake in what was being told to you. Take a step back, and try to focus on the feeling your partner is experiencing, rather than the specifics.
How do you imagine your partner feels? Verbalize it. Remember, you don’t need to give up any of your own needs, power, or position to empathize. It may seem simple, but this is a critical step in modifying and preventing injury to the relationship.
You can decide beforehand how much time to spend on the issue. Then switch sides and roles, but avoid rebuttal and the need to pick apart the details. You don’t need to come to a resolution – this is just a way for each of you to be heard without judgment or escalation. Over time, you may be pleased to discover how much deeper your understanding of one another has become.