How Can I Listen When I Think You’re Wrong?

by Amelia Kaplan Romanowsky on 03/31/2012

One of the most important skills in being a capable and intimate person in a relationship is being able to hold more than one perspective at the same time.

You need to be able to experience your partner’s point of view, while still holding onto your own.

Being able to listen deeply to your partner’s experience – to feel at least partly what he or she felt –so that it makes sense – putting aside your own experience without forgetting it, is the skill. Becoming curious even when  you want to shut out your mate.

It’s what we call empathy.

When I teach couples to reflect what their partners are saying, often they push back: “But I don’t agree. Wait. But. No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

It is true – your experience and your partner’s often diverge tremendously. The truth is that there is no objective reality – there is, as Terry Real explains, what “you made up in your head” and “what I made up in my head” about the same event.

People often fear that to listen deeply and reflect their partner’s experience means that they have to agree with it. You don’t have to agree with your partner. You just have to understand what they are saying.

Being empathic does not mean giving up your point of view. Empathy is not about agreeing with your partner. It is understanding your partner’s point of view in an emotionally vivid way.

And you have to learn to do this while also holding onto your own feelings.

The skill is to keep your own experience apart – hold onto it – but create space for a felt understanding of your partner’s experience. Get curious – curiosity will help you engage even when that part of you that wants to be “right” fights back inside you.

Your feelings and your experience matter as much as your partner’s. And after you ask questions and get clear as to how they experienced something, then you get a chance to explain so they can understand you.

And why is this understanding so important? When you understand what your partner is saying so that it makes sense to you, something changes. When you understand your partner something shifts inside – where formerly “crazy” behavior starts to make sense, where the person who a moment ago might have felt like an enemy suddenly is reasonable again – even if the logic they used you would never use.

Being able to walk in your partner’s shoes and share yourself so they can walk in yours is at the core of what intimacy is about.

Only when you really stop speaking and listen can you send them the signal that you heard them. Which changes your dance. And the more angry or hurt you might feel, the more need there is for your empathy.

Don’t think it’s easy. Empathy is a skill that must be practiced. And practiced. And practiced. There is a reason that building empathy is the core of all couples work.

Takeaway

Next time your partner says or does something that doesn’t make any sense to you, stop and ask them to explain. Don’t explain to them how you saw it differently. Stop and listen. Ask questions. Make sure you really really understand what they are saying. It has to make sense to you. Pay attention to that internal shift when formerly confusing signals become clear.

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