Most couples come to see me to learn better communication skills—or at least that’s what they say in the first session. What gets described as communication problems, however, are usually listening problems.
The truth is, we’re not very good listeners; we don’t know (and are not taught) how to listen to each other, at least not in a manner that makes the other feel truly heard or loved. We know how to listen from the head but not from the heart.
And yet being understood is one of the experiences that human beings crave and need most.
If there’s one ingredient that determines whether a relationship will be successful, that ingredient is listening. Couples that can listen to each other in a satisfying way usually succeed, while those that can’t usually fail. Ultimately, we can only feel loved to the degree that we feel listened to and truly known.
Case Study: Joan and Jon
I recently had a session with “Joan” and “Jon” (not their real names). Joan began by saying that she felt her experience could never be “just heard” by Jon—listened to and absorbed, without any interpretation, solution, judgment, defense, or attack.
Jon responded that this should not be expected of him. Her request was unreasonable in his eyes because he should not have to sit by silently and listen without speaking up for himself—expressing his opinion and providing some explanation. He then told Joan that what she really wanted (whether she knew it or not) was to control the relationship and the interaction—and him, as she “always did.”
Joan, without responding to his interpretation, repeated the same yearning—to be listened to with simple openness and without judgment. Jon countered by telling Joan that her experience was false; he did listen to and hear her, and she should examine why she couldn’t feel his kindness and interest.
Joan then repeated her longing one more time, almost verbatim. This time, Jon’s response was to express how totally alone he feels in the relationship, and how Joan has no interest in hearing about what is important to him.
From there, we began the work on learning how to listen.
What happened between Joan and Jon is not gender-specific, nor is it unique to romantic relationships. What this couple demonstrated is a human problem: We constantly reject each other’s experiences. It’s what we’re taught to do. Listening to them that day, I felt as if I were watching an airplane desperately trying to find a place to land. Rejected by all control towers, they were left flying without direction—unheard, unloved, with nowhere to touch down, and with no way to get home.
We all live with this suffering daily, left with our own orphaned experience to nurture ourselves. Yesterday, for instance, I finished a particularly challenging and heartbreaking session with a client in my office. Carrying a deep well of unprocessed feelings, I came home to find my babysitter in a tiff. Before I had put my keys down, she was unloading her anger on me because my daughter wouldn’t eat her pasta. And just like that, my feelings and needs had to be put away to attend to the situation at hand.
Life is always doing this to us, asking us to move from one experience to another without the processing or the care and attention that we really crave—and need.
What We Really Want
We are conditioned to present our experience to others in a “What should I do about this?” tone, as a way to include the other person. But most of the time, we don’t really want to know what others think we should do, how others think we should fix the issue, or what others think is wrong with us. We have likely already been inundated with countless well-intentioned suggestions, from others and ourselves.
The problem is that what we’re asking from others is not what we actually want, but rather what we believe we are allowed to ask for. We don’t really long for anything to be done about our experience; rather, we just want it to be heard, understood, and cared about. We want someone to know what it’s like for us in this moment and in this life, and to keep us company in our experience.
On the other hand, one of the hardest things is to listen to someone we care about talk about an experience that sounds painful, but not step in to help, offer suggestions, or try to fix it. Equally difficult is to listen to someone describe a problem that they believe we are responsible for, and not defend ourselves. Rounding out this trio is to listen to someone describe a problem we believe they have created, and not try to convince them of their responsibility.
Counterintuitive though it may feel, simply offering our compassionate presence to another person—being willing to truly understand what the other is living—is the greatest gift we can give. By seemingly doing nothing (but truly listening), we are allowing the other to discover what they need to discover, creating a space in which they can uncover their own solution (which is rarely anything we could have come up with). By being willing to do nothing, we are doing the most profound thing of all.
In addition, when we are being blamed for something, if we simply allow space for another’s unhappiness without trying to defend ourselves, we establish ourselves as authentic and brave. In so doing, we become a person who loves deeply enough to put our own ego aside and know another person more fully, even if it’s painful. In this sense, though it is challenging, we actually accomplish more on our own behalf by listening rather than defending. Listening is the defense.
Finally, when we listen to another’s experience without judgment, even when we believe them to be responsible, the other person feels our compassion. This often moves the person to discover their own role in their experience.
Blaming or finger-pointing, on the other hand, only serve to increase their defensiveness, making it less likely that they’ll take ownership. Allowing another person to feel our compassion, through deep and present listening, is the only way to create a safe enough space for them to assume the responsibility we want them to.
Listening, in Practice
All of us long to have our own experience held, heard, and understood, yet we are conditioned to believe that just listening to others is passive and that helping must include action. What we don’t know (because we are not taught) is that true listening is the most active and healing thing we can do, with the most profound results. Ironically, our presence is far more powerful than anything we could ever do for another.
The next time you are listening to someone, see what it feels like to commit to being present, to just listening, without offering interpretation or suggestions. See if you can simply be with their experience as it is, and feel empathy.
Similarly, the next time you are sharing an experience—particularly if you are being bombarded with ideas and feedback—kindly ask the other person if they can listen without suggestions, and just allow space for you.
It may feel like an awkward request, but if the other person can truly offer you this, it will be well worth the discomfort of asking. Notice how it feels to be heard and absorbed in this way. We need to relearn what helping really means, and what we actually need and want from each other—an attentive presence. Simultaneously, we need to be able to recognize and voice our real longing—to be known deeply, really listened to, and not “fixed.”
This experience, at its core, is love.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, an interfaith minister, and the author of the book “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit her website NancyColier.com