Listen first, speak later.
Do you ever feel like when you talk to your partner, they aren’t present? Or when they do respond, you’re met with defensiveness, criticism or something else unhelpful? Maybe they say they’ve heard you, but you don’t feel like you’re actually being listened to. This is because listening to someone and really attuning to their needs, takes more than just hearing the words coming out of their mouth.
Postpone your own agenda
When we listen to someone, it’s natural for us to start formulating a response before they’ve finished talking. Something they said can be exciting, interesting, or triggering. When a person speaks, we want to offer our own point of view. But a lot of the time, this doesn’t help in creating attunement with the other person. Attunement with our partner means that we are completely present and in tune with them (Regan, 2021). When we are attuned to each other, we can have a deep understanding of our partners inner world. We can get a sense of what our partner is feeling. When a couple is attuned, they both feel like they are in a safe and harmonious space. Psychologist and sex therapist Megan Fleming says, “We want to be seen and heard and appreciated and feel connected as human beings. When it comes to attunement, nothing's sexier than mindfulness and being in the present moment."
So when we are listening to our partner, postpone your own agenda for the time being. Really listen to what your partner is saying, even if it’s something you disagree with. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything your partner is saying, but it’s important to show your partner that you understand their point of view. Even if we think they are wrong. By showing your partner that you’ve listened, this can create a safe space where your partner can feel like they’re able to express themselves without worry about being shut down.
How to listen:
Ask open ended questions that will help to deepen your understanding of what your partner has said. For example, “Can you tell me more about that?” “What’s it like for you to feel that way?” “How does this affect you?”
Summarise what your partner has said, by reflecting back what you hear.
Validate your partners experience and express empathy with statements such as, “I can understand where you are coming from and why this has upset you” or “I know this must be hard for you, it makes sense that you feel that way”.
Allow your partner to continue talking while you use the above skills. At the end of the conversation, you can ask “Do you feel like I understand?” If your partner says no, you can ask, “What more should I know so I can understand you better?” Then go through the skills of listening again. Continue this process until your partner feels like you get where they are coming from.
Communication is more than just words
Albert Mehrabian, nonverbal communication researcher, discovered in the 1970s that our communication is made up of (Ryder 2021):
7% verbal (only words)
38% vocal (tone, intonation and other sounds)
55% (non verbal, no words)
Given that 55% of our communication is non-verbal it makes sense that we need to be in tune with this too. Body language can represent an external indicator of an individual’s inner emotional world. Body language can communicate what we are thinking and feeling.
Posture i.e. hunching or sitting up straight
Facial expressions i.e. frown can mean sadness, scowl can be interpreted as anger, raised brows can show surprise
Hand gestures i.e. thumbs up, waving or pointing
Non verbal cues i.e. smiling, nodding or winking
By observing our partners body language, it can add further understanding into what our partner may be experiencing.
Be aware of your assumptions
Whilst it’s important to consider what our partner may be expressing through their body language, we also need to be aware that our assumptions could be wrong. For example, our partner having their arms crossed could be interpreted as them being closed off to us. When it might just mean they’re cold or giving themselves a hug to self soothe. Rather than making our interpretations, we can gently ask our partner, “What do you think or how do you feel about what I said?”
Learning how to listen intently and attuning to our partner can be difficult, particularly when we hold strong beliefs or want to hold on to our perspective. When things are challenging, it’s important to remind ourselves, how would I want to be listened to? And go from there.
Regan, S. (2021) This spiritual practice will increase intimacy & connection with your partner, mindbodygreen. Available at: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/attunement (Accessed: 16 July 2023).
Ryder, G. (2021) How to understand and read body language, Psych Central. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/health/body-language#can-it-be-misleading (Accessed: 16 July 2023).