You Never Told Me! Listening Well in Family Life

Father talking with sonHow many times have you heard something like this in your household?

“You remember. I told you about it last week. You said you were fine with it.”

“What? No you didn’t. This is the first I’ve heard about it!”

Whether it’s a teenager talking about a social event, or a spouse talking about a business trip, family life is full of conversations that only the speaker seems to remember! Misconnections, hurt feelings, and chronic frustration can surface in relationships where this happens frequently. Why does this important communication gap happen, and what can be done about it?

As someone who listens for a living, I have been amazed at how often my skills in the office disappear when I am in my own home. My husband begins to tell me something about his workday, exactly the kind of sharing talk I encourage in marriages and families every day, and my mind drifts off topic onto something I’ve been thinking about. If I have the laptop open, I may find my eyes moving from him to the screen without thinking. If I’m cooking, or listening to the television, and one of my teenagers begins to tell me about their day at school, my best efforts to listen are often stymied by the details of the pasta or the noise of the commercial. I’m astonished at how automatic this half-listening is in family life, and how hard it can be for family members to truly, patiently hear what a loved one is saying.

After thinking about this on and off for years, I believe that listening in family life is hard for several reasons:

1. Familiarity with the other’s voice. I believe that listening to the rhythm, tone and sound of another person’s voice for years and years makes our brains a bit dull to creating the attention we need to listen well.

2. Repetitive topics. There’s nothing like something new or different to catch our attention. But most of daily life in our home is a combination of familiar details, people, issues, and problems we deal with day-to-day.

3. Emotional dissonance. Home is the place most of us feel most free to be our full selves, and that includes our negative emotions, traits, and attitudes. If we are annoyed with what our family member is saying, doing, or feeling, we may just tune it out avoid conflict in ourselves.

4. Using communication as punishment. Many of us learn to express anger, hurt, resentment, and other dark emotions by refusing to communicate. We stop talking and/or listening as a form of punishment, and use that behavior in an effort to receive an apology or other expression of remorse from a loved one.

So, with all that going for us, how do we listen to each other at all!? It isn’t easy, and the family that regularly listens well has learned to manage all these roadblocks and more. What habits of mind can we all learn to strengthen if listening is a challenge to our family relationships?

1. Talk about important things face to face.  When we look at someone while he or she is speaking, we can pick up all kinds of other information besides the words used. We might notice the person’s facial expressions, body language, and feelings in the silence between sentences. All this visual information helps us not only hear the full message, but remember it, too.

2. Learn to interrupt the daily distractions and focus.  I have to make myself shut my laptop regularly when a family member begins talking to me. It has become a signal to myself to look up, focus, and listen to what is being said. The same can be done when muting the television, putting down the cell phone or magazine, or turning off the car radio. Give the speaker your full attention.

3. Make it a habit to ask questions. Nothing increases understanding when we are listening to another person than asking relevant questions. By asking for more information, you will add details, extend the conversation, and drastically increase your mutual memory of the discussion.

4. Listen for emotion as well as information. Most of our conversations aren’t just about problem solving, arranging schedules, or passing information back and forth. We talk to share ourselves, and those selves are expressed in the language of feelings as well as thoughts. When we connect with each other at an emotional level, we really share ourselves.

While new couples, marriages, and families may begin with intense listening and sharing, we can become complacent and distracted by our busy lives as the years go by. Listening is one of the most basic human skills we have and among the hardest to do well. Do your best to develop good listening skills as a family member, and you’ll feel your marital and family satisfaction strengthen and grow.

© Copyright 2011 by Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT, therapist in Burnsville, Minnesota. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Liza B

    Liza B

    August 10th, 2011 at 4:33 AM

    If only I could get my husband to look at me and not the tv when I am trying to talk to him then maybe we could have a conversation that was worth something evry once in a while.

  • Kenny

    Kenny

    August 10th, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    I’ve had this problems with my parents many times.Happened both ways too,so I cant just blame them.

    I never thought about the points that u have given as reasons,but they r very reasonable.Maybe I really should give undivided attention 2 them when they r talking n encourage them to do the same 2.

  • Joanna A.

    Joanna A.

    August 14th, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    Oh boy, I am so bad at that too, listening with one eye on the stove or the laptop. And I know I’m not really listening properly at all. To make matters worse, our livingroom/diningroom/kitchen is all open plan which means the family thinks it’s okay to talk to me from 20-30 feet away because they can see me and then wonder why I don’t hear them properly or answer them! It’s definitely a task we need to work on. Thanks for the tips, Lynne.

  • Marianne Appleton

    Marianne Appleton

    August 15th, 2011 at 9:39 PM

    Sometimes this happens to me. I’ll go to talk to hubby about something big I want to do that I think I’ll need to persuade him about, like me decorating the kitchen say.(He can’t stand upheaval). If he’s busy I’ll think “I’ll ask him later” and I put that all to one side in my brain.

    Days later, I’ll think to myself that I don’t remember him objecting-I am well known for my awful memory-and go ahead and do whatever it is. That’s when the problem happens because he’ll then get annoyed I didn’t talk to him about it and I’ll genuinely think I I did.

    The only reason I remember the conversation vaguely is because I had it with myself while rehearsing what I was going to say and imagining his responses LOL.

  • Phoebe Dowds

    Phoebe Dowds

    August 15th, 2011 at 10:10 PM

    A rule in my house now is “Any agreements made while my attention is divided do not count” since you never know what is going to happen if you can’t remember every detail of the conversation you just had.

    The kids used to catch me out all the time because I’d have had half an ear open. Suddenly I’d get a letter thanking me for agreeing to join the PTA or help out at a school fair because they had taken my distracted “mmmm…uh huh” as “Oh yes I’d LOVE to!”.

    I couldn’t renege on it because they did ask; I simply wasn’t paying attention. On the bright side, their schools love me and think I’m a star mom. Ha! ;)

  • Gabriella Jacobs

    Gabriella Jacobs

    August 17th, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    Very funny, Phoebe.:) I’ve found myself roped into things I’d sooner have avoided too because I wasn’t giving my family my full attention. The worst was when my daughter’s roommate came to stay for three weeks and I didn’t have a thing ready for having a houseguest when they both appeared at the door.

    I think you do catch what truly matters even if it’s only your subconscious that does and it takes a while to surface. I’d not miss the word “pregnant” from my daughter’s lips for example I’m sure!

  • Floyd Booth

    Floyd Booth

    August 17th, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    @Gabriella–That reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes comic where he says he wants to grow up to be a radical terrorist and inhale an entire can of pesticide. His mother is sipping coffee saying “Mmhmm…” and the second he says “I’m going to watch TV all night”, she says “That’s what YOU think, buster!” :)

  • britney hall

    britney hall

    August 17th, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    If you need to agree on or talk about an important topic, it’s best to put it in writing. Seriously.

    I email my husband notes that say remind me to talk to you about this or that. We work different shifts and don’t always remember about it until the other person’s at work and unreachable. That way I don’t forget completely or choose a bad moment to bring it up because he knows I would like him to make time for that. Usually he mentions it the first time we’re both sitting down together.

    It works really well for us both. He does the same as I do and sends me emails too. Our friends laugh but we’ve got far less communication problems than they do! :) And having it sitting in your inbox keeps it at the front of your mind.

  • Gerry Marshall

    Gerry Marshall

    August 19th, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    A major communication problem I have with my elderly mother is that she says one thing, and I do it, when she meant another. For example she’ll say get the shears and I do, then she says “No, I meant the branch cutter.” When I tell her she explicitly said shears, she get annoyed. “You know what I meant!”. You have to say what you mean and mean what you say. Because no, we don’t know what you meant. Be clear!

  • esther davies

    esther davies

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    @Liza–You should try this. When a commercial break comes on, mute the TV and say “Honey…” or whatever your preferred pet name is. Nobody wants to watch commercials and Lord knows we’d rather do anything else than sit through them.

    Or you can be polite and say “Could I have 30 minutes later?” instead of talking over the TV ad timeframe. TV can’t be paused, but a conversation can be put on hold for a few minutes.

  • Billy Minor

    Billy Minor

    September 26th, 2011 at 4:04 PM

    Oh man, this used to happen all the time. It was bad too, sometimes i felt like my mother never listened. “Mom, you don’t remember? I talked about it all week!” would be a common line, after this things could get heated with me ending the conversation with “I hate you “and then running into my room. Yeah… really wish I could take those moments back and do things differently.

    In the case of my mother, I think repetitiveness was the problem. I’d always have one or to hobbies at a time that would go on for months before I switched gears. I’m sure after a while my mother got sick of hearing it, I know I would. I don’t blame my mother for this looking back, my hobbies weren’t very exciting =(

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