NEW SKILLS FOR TALKING--& LISTENING--TO THE MAN YOU LOVE! [may be extra article not included in the book]
--By Carolyn Jabs
Most couples start as friends. Think back. During those early getting-to-know-you dates, must of what you did was talk--about your past, your hopes, your innermost secrets. Part of what made you want to marry each other was probably a sense that here, at last, was someone who really understood you.
Unfortunately, once couples marry, that sense of friendship can erode under such everyday stresses as deciding how the money should be spent or dividing up the household chores. "When two people share the same space & resources, conflict is inevitable," says Dr. Bernard Guerney, a psychologist at the College of Human Development at Pennsylvania State University. "Most people think you win by pushing your own point of view, but the harder one person pushes, the more defensive the other person becomes. Eventually both people are wary & impatient with each other." And that is no climate for camaraderie.
Can couples recover the trusting, confiding relationship that is at the core of a good friendship? Dr. Guerney is convinced they can. He has taught thousands of couples "relationship enhancement skills," which help them to talk to each other honestly & sympathetically--like friends.
The heart of Dr. Guerney's approach is "empathetic listening," a skill you can use to make your husband feel understood, accepted & loved. Ordinarily, when someone, especially your husband, tells you something, you immediately evaluate whether it seems true to you. Then your mind races ahead to figure out what you'll say in reply. Often, you're so busy working out a rebuttal that you don't really hear what the other person has to say.
In contrast, empathetic listening involves forgetting yourself & your own responses for a while so you can concentrate all your attention on your husband & understand what's true as he sees it. Your goal is to create an utterly safe environment in which the person you love feels free to explore his own thoughts & feelings without worrying that you will misinterpret them or hold them against him. This is the very essence of friendship, for, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. With him, I may think aloud."
This kind of listening is hardest with someone you've lived with a long time because you can't help feeling that you know in advance what the other person is going to say. When, for instance, your husband starts complaining about his boss, you probably have a here-we-go-again reflex. But try listening intently. Pay attention to details, such as the name of the person who provoked this current problem. The simple act of tuning in to his concerns will make your husband feel that you understand & care about what he's going through.
When you do speak, don't talk about yourself or even your reactions to what your husband just said. Instead, mirror back what you've heard from him. If, for instance, he says, "The kids are driving me crazy. There's never a moment's peace around here," your first reaction might be, "What do you expect? You never give them any time." But, if you're going to be his friend, you need to start by understanding his feelings. So, instead, you might say something like, "You feel as though you don't get enough quiet time to yourself." Later, you could express your own feeling that everyone would benefit if he spent more time with the kids, but when you're listening empathically your goal is to absorb his point of view as completely as possible.
Always try to say things that lead the other person to say, "Yes!" or "That's right!", says Guerney. "Most people become more honest with themselves & with you if they are treated compassionately. Try to let your respect for the other person & your compassion for him show through in your words, the way you say them & the way you look when you speak. For example, avoid using the word "I"; saying something like "I hear you saying..." draws attention away from your husband's thoughts & toward your interpretation of them. For he same reason, don't ask questions. "That takes the ball away from the speaker," says Guerney. "Instead of freely continuing to express himself, he is forced to focus on what you want to know."
This kind of listening & speaking doesn't come naturally. In fact, when you first try empathic listening, you may feel so self-conscious that you don't want to do it with your husband. Guerney tells his students to rehearse with friends or even total strangers, like people you meet on the check-out line at the supermarket. "People, by nature, are thinking about their own concerns & wanting to get their own point of view across." he explains. "Most people have to learn to restrain themselves & leave themselves out of the picture for a while so the other person can really explore his own thoughts."
Obviously, empathic skills require too much effort for you to use them all the time. They're most appropriate when you see thunderheads on the horizon or when you sense that your husband wants to get something off his chest. "When a person comes home from a rough day at work, that's an excellent time to become an empathic listener," says Guerney. "Very often, that's the time a spouse will try to calm him down or tell him how to handle his problems. But that's the last thing most people want." What is needed at that moment is nothing more--or less--than a good friend who will listen sympathetically without judging or even analysing.
The most difficult time to be empathic is when your husband is talking about you, particularly if he's being critical. At those times, remember that empathy doesn't imply agreement. It's simply a willingness to listen carefully so you fully understand the other person's point of view. Knowing the truth about how he feels, even when it's painful, is the only way you can help your relationship grow.
Also, criticism is easier to hear if you search for the positive feelings that underlie it. "When a person is telling you something negative about yourself in an attempt--as he sees it--to improve you, it is because he cares for you enough to want to see you improve," says Guerney. "The time to be really upset is when people stop telling you how to improve. That means they've given up on you; they no longer have faith that you can please them."
Of course, friendship is more than being a microphone that picks up everything the other person says. You also need to reveal & express yourself. When Guerney teaches expressive skills, he stresses the importance of telling your partner--often--what you like about him & the things he does. "There's a tendency to talk only when something needs to be fixed rather than when things are going well," says Guerney. "But, to sustain a friendship, you have to talk about the good things."
Even conversations about problems go more smoothly if you begin by saying something that reveals your fundamental appreciation of the other person. Perhaps you're fed up because your husband promised to do a repair job over the weekend but never got around to it. Instead of launching into your complaint, start by saying that you know how hard he works during the week & how much he values his leisure time. If it's sincere, an empathic statement like that will make it easier for your husband to hear what you have to say. Rather than sounding like an enemy poised for battle, you seem like a friend who wants to work out a problem with respect for his needs.
That doesn't mean you should ignore your own needs. Instead, state them as just that--your needs. "Saying, `this is what I would prefer, this is what would make me happy' is highly effective," says Guerney. "It's also extremely difficult. People feel that it's more persuasive & less selfish to talk about what's `right' or `mature' or `fair.'" Actually, accusing your partner of being wrong or immature simply hardens his resistance--you are, after all, attacking him--& that makes it less likely that you will get what you want. Instead, Guerney suggests these tactics:
Don't generalise. When you make blanket statements--"You're always late," "You never think about my feelings"--your husband stops listening & starts looking for the exception that will prove you wrong. For the same reason, don't make generalisations about your husband's character. Calling people lazy, inconsiderate or selfish doesn't motivate them to change. "When you aim arrows like that at a person, they don't want to listen," says Guerney. "They just want to shoot arrows back to hurt you."
State your feelings, especially the positive ones. Remember that you want him to change because you care so much about him. Instead of letting that feeling be an unspoken undercurrent, bring it to the surface. If, for instance, your husband comes home late, which of these statements is more likely to get his sympathetic attention?: "I don't understand why you can't let me know when you won't be coming home on time," or "I really look forward to your coming home, so I feel disappointed if you don't arrive when I expect you."
Recognise how hard change can be. Think about how tough it is to make even little revisions in your own habits. "People are the way they are for very complex reasons, & asking them to change is often threatening." says Guerney. Instead of finding fault with your husband when he lapses into old habits, try telling him how much you appreciate his efforts when he tries do to things your way.
Guerney acknowledges that his communication skills require enormous patience & self-control. But he is also certain that the results are worth it. "Whenever you show compassion & kindness, the relationship is enriched," he explains. "There's more openness & a greater sense of warmth because the other person feels you care & can be trusted." Openness, Warmth, Caring, Trust. That sounds like a definition of friendship--or of a marriage between friends.