Sometimes I think we’re all hard of hearing. Either that, or we’re all just so wrapped up in our own ideas, wants, and opinions that we just don’t care to hear what anyone else has to say.
We are a nation of interrupters. We can’t let anyone else finish a sentence, yet we become mightily offended if someone else interrupts us. Don’t believe me? Watch The View for ten minutes. It will drive you crazy. Better yet, watch a political debate. Best of all, try listening to your spouse without butting in. Even if you are SURE you know what he’s going to say, let him say it. Give him the courtesy of letting him finish his thought.
In conversation, some people are slow cookers and some are microwaves. The slowcookers may not immediately jump in with exactly the right words to say, and then the microwave takes off like a rocket, assuming that the slowcooker didn’t understand, or doesn’t care, or maybe is just stupid.
I do a lot of couples’ counseling. It’s hard. Inevitably, they will each have a different communication style which the other has never bothered to appreciate. Mrs. Microwave is enraged by Mr. Slowcooker’s ponderous thinking processes. Mr. Slowcooker feels cut off at the knees when she unleashes a flood of words, and it slows him down even more. As time goes on, she become more angry and verbose; he becomes more angry and silent.
Sometimes it’s the other way around, and the wife feels beaten down and defeated by her husband’s ability to wind her up with his words. Listening to him talk is like taking a drink out of a fire hydrant.
(You won’t want to listen to this whole thing. It’s unendurable. But it illustrates my point)
Add to that difficult situation the probability that one or the other of the people in this relationship always, always has to win. It’s a one-up, one-down situation in which the Loser feels more and more unloved, misunderstood, and unappreciated. The Winner feels justified in his attitude, becoming incredibly impatient with his spouse. He will accuse her of lying, of not listening to him. If the wife is the Winner, she will destroy her husband with her disprespect and constant criticism.
Years ago I had a couple in which the wife was the verbal microwave, and the Winner. It made no difference what the husband said or how he tried to appease her, he could never change the dynamic. He was becoming silent, withdrawn, and uninvolved. She was more furious with him with every day that passed, verbally browbeating him into a corner he couldn’t escape. During one of our last sessions, I finally asked the wife, “Does your husband EVER get to be right?”
She was shocked, for once, and had nothing to say for enough seconds for him to say to me, “Thank you!” Then she unleashed all over me and him, and I didn’t see her again. He came back a time or two. I don’t expect their marriage survived.
Another couple was struggling to reconcile after the husband’s affair. The wife, as is very common, insisted on details. She wanted to know why the OW (other woman) was more appealing to him than she was. The OW wasn’t nearly as pretty, didn’t have much personality, and her figure had gone south with gravity. The wife was dying inside, wanting to understand why he had betrayed her.
The husband was truly broken and repentant, yet he seemed unable to answer her questions to her satisfaction. What he told me in a private session was that the OW made him feel respected. He was afraid to tell his wife that, fearing that she would be inflamed by the criticism and actually leave him. These two people needed to learn how to talk with each other without measuring every word in an effort to avoid offending each other. The wife was more open, but she was also not willing to tolerate his efforts to be tactful.
There are tools I offer people to help them learn to talk together. Active Listening is one of those tools. Another is learning to listen without interrupting; to give the other person time to gather her thoughts without becoming impatient. Sometimes, when I’m listening to a client, there will be periods of silence while I just wait for whatever else the person may have to say. Always, every single time, the person will start talking again.
This is hard for me. I’m an interrupter, a microwave. I always have something to say. But the slowcookers in my life are helping me learn to pay better attention, to listen to hear, and not to debate.
That’s what we all need to do: Listen to hear and understand, not just to debate to win. Usually, we lose when we win.