WRITTEN BY Felicia Kashevaroff

Mastering the Art of Listening in Relationships: Beyond Words

Introduction to Listening in Relationships

Recently we’ve offered up a couple of relationship exercises. In each one, we’ve given very specific instructions to listen to your partner with “curiosity and without judgment.” So, what does that mean, and how do we do it?

Effective Relationship Communication
Older couple working together at desk

The Common Pitfalls of Relationship Communication in Couples

When working with couples and their partner is talking, I often notice a predictable reaction in the other person. They might purse their lips or narrow their eyes. I can see the thoughts forming in their heads to argue and contradict what their partner is saying. Everyone does this, and I get it. I’ve done it too. We’re so caught up in our own experience that we lose sight of what our partner is saying. And that is a missed opportunity.

The Art of Listening with Curiosity and Without Judgment

Let’s use an example from a fictional coaching couple:

Partner A is sharing what they noticed using the Noticing Exercise. Their list includes the following:

Case Study: The Noticing Exercise in Action

  • There are toys on the living room floor
  • The guest bath is out of hand soap
  • There is a burnt-out lightbulb in the hallway
  • The grass needs to be trimmed

The Impact of Defensive Responses

Partner B responds, “Ugh, the trash needs to be taken out, and you know that’s your job. Why on earth didn’t you notice that? It should have been taken out yesterday!!!”

What do you think happens to partner A? They may have a shame response, they may get defensive, and they most certainly won’t be open to sharing their thought process about what they noticed and why. Missed opportunity.

A Constructive Approach to Relationship Communication

Let’s try the conversation again:

Partner A — shares the same list above.

Partner B — “Hmmm, that’s interesting. Tell me more about why you noticed those things.”

Partner A — “Your parents are coming over for dinner on Sunday, and those are the things I think your dad will notice, so I want to make sure they’re done.”

Partner B — “Haha, that’s true. My dad always notices when the grass is too long and lightbulbs are out. And last time, my mom complained about no hand soap in the bathroom. Thanks for remembering that. I also noticed the toys need to be picked up and the trash needs to be taken out. Also, laundry is piling up, and groceries are running low. How should we allocate those tasks this week?”

Partner A – “Oh yeah, the trash. Of course. Let’s figure out the plan for the week, and then I’ll take it right out. Let’s get the kids to pick up their toys.”

Misinterpretations and Assumptions in Communication

When our partner shares information with us or offers feedback, we start to tell a story about what they mean. Often we assume that they’re criticizing us for something we did or didn’t do or for some perceived flaw in our character. We instantly become defensive, and rather than listening, we start to form an argument in our minds – an argument devoid of curiosity and full of judgment.

Strategies for Effective and Empathetic Listening

I encourage you to check yourself for this behavior. Pause and take a moment to assume that our partner is an ally, not an enemy. Are they really attacking us, or could it be something else? If you feel strongly that their tone does denote criticism, ask. Try something like this — “I’m feeling criticized right now, and I’m making up a story that you think xyz (I’m lazy, irresponsible, demanding, whatever you may think). Is that what you meant?

Seeking Professional Help: Conflict Management Sessions

This is hard to do for many, many people. Be patient with one another. Allow each other the opportunity to rewind a conversation and start again if it starts to go off the rails. Work towards the assumption that you’re both on the same team, that you’re both working toward the common goal of managing the stressful parts of your lives together so you can create more time for joy, meaning, and connection. 

Conclusion: Building Joy, Meaning, and Connection

If you’re struggling to get it right, book a conflict management session to practice with a neutral third party. We’re here to help!