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In my couples therapy practice, the most common goal that couples identify when they first attend counselling is a desire to improve the communication in their relationship. So stop and ask yourself this question: Are there times when you say something to your partner that you believe is clear and direct only to have your partner completely misinterpret what you’ve just said or worse, stare at you with his or her head slightly cocked to the side as though you might have just spoken a foreign language? If so, then this article is for you.

Before I proceed to reveal the secret to better communication, please understand that what I’m about to share is profound and effective. However, many people have an inherent dislike for the statement that I am about to make and tend to dismiss it as soon as it’s put on the table. I would encourage you to resist the urge to bypass the rest of this article and hear me out. So, what’s the secret to better communication? If you want to become a better communicator, you must become a better listener. Yep, that’s it. Listening. Such a simple concept and yet one that most of us, if we’re being honest, aren’t very good at particularly when we what we’re hearing is upsetting to us.

A common reason for a breakdown in listening is increased physiological arousal. When we hear something that triggers a strong emotion in us such as anger, frustration, hurt, or even excitement, our nervous system jumps into high gear and starts preparing us for flight or fight. You may have heard of this concept before. It’s your body’s ability to get you geared up for battle. Unfortunately, it also interferes in our ability to think rationally and distracts us from staying in the moment. In other words, as soon as your significant other has said something that upsets you, you’ve likely started thinking of arguments designed to defend yourself or to prove him or her wrong. Our outrage or hurt literally creates a physiolically mediated barrier that makes it hard to hear the other person.  What’s worse is that we’re much more likely in such circumstances to interpret our partner’s meaning in the most negative way possible  It’s your brain’s natural defense mechanism. If you’re prepared for danger, you have a better chance of defending yourself. If you’re prepared for the worst your partner can throw at you, you’ll have a better chance of preventing yourself from feeling hurt.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Think of the last time you and your partner had a conflict. Do you remember that feeling in the pit of your stomach that let you know that you didn’t like what he or she had to say? Did your heart start beating faster? Did you start speaking more quickly or jump in to cut him or her off? Did your face get warm or your blood feel like it literally started to boil? Did your muscles get tense? Did you notice yourself clenching your jaw or your fists? These are all symptoms of increased physiological arousal and a sign that you’re listening skills just took a dive off the nearest cliff.

Here are 3 important steps that will help you become a better listener and improve any relationship.

1. As soon as you notice increased physiological arousal during a conversation, take a slow, deep, quiet breath. Now take another. Your goal right now is to calm your body enough that you can stay in the present and listen rather than preparing for battle. You’ll know your body is preparing for flight or fight if you experience a strong feeling like anger, hurt, or frustration or experience physical signs of arousal like increased heart rate, muscle tension, or discomfort in your stomach. I know. You really want to jump in and defend yourself or show your partner how wrong he or she is in what they’re saying. But if you do that, you’ll be sliding down the slope of poor listening habits. The point of taking that deep breath (or 2 or 3 breaths), is to let your nervous system know that you’re not in danger and it does not need to fire up the fight or flight response. The calmer you remain physically, the better you will be able to listen.

2. Okay, you’ve taken control of your physical response…now what did your partner say? That’s right. At this point, we often don’t even know what the other person has said. Or more importantly, what they meant. Take a moment to check in. Start with this sentence…..”I think I heard you say_______________, is that right?” More often than not, your partner will say, that’s not quite right. Ask them to try again. What you’re doing is demonstrating that you care enough to hear what they have to say even if you don’t like it. Even more importantly, however, is that you’re ensuring that the information that you’re getting is the right information. Then when you go to respond, you’ll be talking about the real issues rather than getting stuck arguing about what you think you heard.

3. Now for the hard part. Every sentence is made up of content and meaning. All too often we get stuck on the content and mess up the meaning. For example, your partner says “wow, I thought you’d be ready by now.” What did you just hear? Did you hear your partner express his or her surprise at their own mistaken assumption? Or did you hear a thinly veiled criticism about taking too long to get ready? Or did you hear an even more negative message such as that you’re always too slow at getting ready, always disappointing the other person, and there must be something wrong with you. Too often, when couples are struggling in their relationship, they interpret each other’s words in the most negative way possible.  Sometimes they’re right, but often they’re wrong. So, you don’t gain anything from assuming the worst. Check in with your partner about what they meant. For example, you can start with …”I’m interpreting what you just said as a criticism about my ability to get ready.  Is that what you meant?” If your partner really meant it as a criticism, now is a great time to do what you’ve wanted to do all along and that’s speak. So, you might say…”it’s upsetting to hear you say that.” Yep, that’s all. Don’t launch into a counter attack about all of his or her flaws. Don’t bring up all the times that you were ready before her or him. Just let your partner know that you heard his or her words as a criticism and it was upsetting. Now instead of defending herself or himself, your partner can respond to how her or his words made you feel.

So now that you’re armed with a few basic tools that will help you become a better listener, go out and practice, practice, practice. Be patient when trying out these new skills because change doesn’t come easy. You might find yourself getting lost in the heat of the moment or your partner may not understand where this new style is coming from. As long as you persevere, you’ll find that you get better and better at it and you’ll start seeing the results of being a better listener.