In a recent podcast (yet to be released), Lark Dean Galley observed that women want to be loved and men want to be respected. The respect she discussed is avoiding the many temptations every day to nit pick her husband or make a running commentary on everything he does, how she wants things done, etc. (Truthfully, I have yet to meet the woman who can endure constant criticism either.) Paradoxically, I think one of the most important ways women feel loved is being listened to. So while she needs him to listen to her commentary on him, he needs her to stop commenting so frequently. How do we find out way out of this paradox?
To begin, let me say that I believe men need to be listened to also. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about "toxic masculinity." That includes the kind of masculinity that causes many (me included) to avoid admitting that they have emotional or practical needs. Oftentimes, we spend our days thanklessly taking care of everyone else in several ways that other people just think is our responsibility. We often worry alone. I believe that is why the suicide rate for men is triple the suicide rate for women.
I think one important thing to remember is that listening is not always about fixing. Sometimes it is. Sometimes she just wants him to hang the towels in a certain way or take off his shoes before he comes into the house or not park the car slanted. That's all about fixing. As Lark pointed out, men get tired of being fixed. In like manner, many women become frustrated when they try to talk to their husbands about a worry and their husbands go into "fix it" mode and start telling them what to do. In both cases, I think men and women do not want to be controlled. They want to be understood.
While every relationship is different, there are some common ideas that will work for many people.
Yes, I absolutely believe the way you think about the other person drives the way you listen to him or her. The first principle of good listening is not a skill. It's the way you see people. They don't owe you. They don't have responsibilities to you. Anything that other person does for you or with you is a gift of love.
So how can you think in a way that makes you a good listener? Think about why you started the relationship with that person, whether you are dating or married. Think about his or her noble qualities and the things you admire. Do your best to ignore the other person's quirks. (Yeah guys, if you feel like she is nagging you, try to ignore that too and focus on her better qualities.) Believe it or not you have just as many quirks--and I think you would rather have people ignore your quirks too. The thoughts that dominate your mind about your partner will determine your feelings about him or her. The way you feel says more about you than it does about any other person. For example, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you" says that you don't have staying power. It says nothing about whether the other person is lovable or attractive. So let your loving and admiring thoughts dominate your mind. Resist the natural temptation to always look for what is wrong.
2. Resist the urge to fix. Once you start fixing, open communication generally ceases. The person who is the subject of your fixing will generally think that whatever he or she says is going to result in advice from you that he or she may not want. If the person asks for advice, that is a different matter. He or she may feel lost and need a little guidance or confirmation that his or her thinking on something is good. We often go to our spouses or dating partners for that kind of counsel. But generally don't give it unless it's asked for. Focus on understanding where the other person is coming from, why he feels between a rock and a hard place or why she feels emotionally crushed by what your child's school teacher said to her that day. Don't judge it. Don't fix it. Just try to understand.
3. Don't speak until you feel compassion. The most accurate way I know to determine whether you are beginning to understand the other person is if you feel compassion toward him or her. Compassion comes from understanding. Understanding comes from listening.
Most people are not crazy. If your partner says something inane, you may be tempted to think he or she is crazy. If you listen to it and unpack it a little, you will find rationality in every irrational belief. It may be associated with trauma in the person's history resulting in fear. You have an opportunity to become a safe place for your partner if you listen and understand. That is how you build trust. Once you have come to understand, you will feel compassion. You will then know what to say and how to say it. Until then, just listen.
4. Ask questions. What puzzles you about what the other person said? If it sounds crazy, what are you missing? Ask honest and genuine questions. By this, I don't mean cross examining. I don't mean asking questions that lead to a particular outcome that you want to impose on the person. I don't mean tricky questions. I mean honest questions that give the person an opportunity to open up to you and enlighten you about his or her thinking. Most of us who have served missions were taught how to do this in the MTC and practiced it for two years. Sometimes, we were unfortunately so eager for the person to accept the gospel that we didn't wait until we truly understood at a deep level to start pushing them toward outcomes. But, many of us became more effective missionaries when we began to understand that you really don't get anywhere with people until they feel understood. Asking good questions is an important skill in listening.
5. Don't sweat the small stuff. I think the way out of the conundrum discussed at the beginning is to realize that not all issues are of equal importance. If he puts the plates away in the wrong place for the 15th time, how much does it really matter? Maybe you can focus on the fact that he unloaded the dishwasher voluntarily after working all day, even if he didn't do it exactly the way you wanted. If she ignored the "check engine" light in her car for a few weeks, and you have a repair bill, she probably feels bad already. So let it go. Let people learn the lessons life teaches them; and trust them to learn without your belaboring the subject.
6. Give nonverbal or a brief verbal feedback. John Gottman often talks about the importance of showing the other person you are listening by nodding or making small comments while the other person talks. That might include just throwing in the word "interesting" in a thoughtful and not sarcastic tone. It might include "tell me more about that." This kind of feedback lets the other person know that you are engaged and not just patiently waiting for the conversation to be over. If practical reasons mean it is not a good time for a conversation, then openly communicate that. "Honey, I really want to hear what you have to say. But I have to jump on a work call in 5 minutes. Could we discuss this after work?" Then be as good as your word and make it a priority to keep your commitment. That will also help to build trust.
I believe that being a good listener is not just important in marriage, but in the workplace, and in dating relationships. Practice being a good listener with your dating partners. It isn't just listening for information, though that is part of it. Listen also for the feelings that animate the information. Listen for the emotional context. That will aid understanding.