Do you listen? Do you really hear and understand the meaning of what your partner is telling you? Are you curious? Do you practice loving-kindness?
Recently I asked a man if he thought he was a good communicator. His answer was a quick “yes.” But what he does well is talk and tell stories. When his wife expresses a different opinion, he interrupts and explains why she is wrong and his position is the right one.
Being a good communicator is a two-way street—sending and receiving. We need to be able to send a message our partner can hear, and we need to verify that the information we intended is actually the information received.
The other half of communicating is listening and receiving the information our partner sends. This may be a more important part for a felt sense of connection.
As a couples counselor specializing in Imago Relationship Therapy, I have observed many times someone saying to their partner, “I understand,” or, “I know what you mean.” It appears they think they do, and they don’t think they have to say any more about it to make sure.
Just because you think you understand doesn’t mean you do. You may just think you do. You need to do a reality check to make certain.
We all want to be heard and understood, to be deeply known, especially by our most intimate partners with whom we have committed to spending our lives. This takes effort and intention.
When couples ask if I think they will make it in repairing their relationship conflicts, my response is, “If you each are willing to make an effort and do the work.” Spending time pointing out your partner’s faults isn’t helpful. But spending time trying to understand your partner and why they think the way they do and do the things they do is.
In Imago relationships, the essential tool is couples dialogue. It is a three-step process:
- It begins by hearing and “mirroring” what you heard said until your partner acknowledges that you got the message that was intended. After paraphrasing what you heard, you ask, “Did I get that?”
- The second step is validating. This is where you let your partner know how he or she made sense to you. It is not about agreeing or disagreeing, just understanding the other person’s logic.
- The third step is empathy. Given what your partner said and his or her logic, what do you imagine your partner is feeling? You might say, “I imagine you might be feeling (sad, frustrated, etc.). Is that accurate?”
This process takes practice and may not feel natural at first. It may even feel laborious at times.
Many people may have a tendency to react to what they heard with defensiveness. When you do this, you stop listening and start thinking about what you are feeling and want to say next. You may become emotionally flooded and unable to think straight.
This is the time to request a “timeout” to calm yourself so you can continue. We want to be sure we let our partners know we will return at a specific time to finish the dialogue.
With time and practice, the dialogue process will become familiar. The reward is feeling more closeness, more intimacy, and more understanding of yourself and your partner. When this happens, there is less arguing and bickering and more compassion.
My husband and I have found that we are now able to “cut to the chase” and “get to the point” much more quickly now than before we had knowledge of this three-step process. That is a reward that, in my mind, is well worth the effort.
My appreciation and regards to the founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen Hunt.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marian Stansbury, PhD, therapist in Milford, Connecticut
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