A look of terror on the face of the person in front of you and a sense of dread as your panicked manoeuvres make little or no difference to the inevitable impact. Unfortunately, this describes the moment just before I crashed into another car a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately, it didn't describe a collision in my relationship. Relationship collisions are a lot like car accidents. People don't read the signals or notice what is happening, and then the crunch comes.
'Listening with Your Heart' might sound like a soppy, airy fairy, new age mantra, however, in this context I think it fits. To take away someone's heart means to take away her or his lifeblood. Saying to someone 'I love you with all my heart' means to give yourself fully. 'Listening with Your Heart' invites an understanding of your partner, their fears, feelings and intentions in the fullest way. The understanding you gain is a gift for the relationship journey.
Counsellors often teach couples communication skills, and listening is key to effective communication. Communication skills work differently for different people. Couples have their own unique way of communicating and successful relationships may not necessarily adhere to tried and true formulas. For example, I know a couple that have been happily married for 40 years and at the first sign of conflict, he heads for his garden and she starts baking. Not the sort of thing learned in Conflict Resolution Courses! The formula works for this couple, but it is one that may drive others batty.
What strikes me is how well these people understand each other. They know that the other dislikes conflict, and that a short time apart will enable them to let the issue go. The same situation with another couple might follow this example. A conflict situation develops and he heads for the garden. She comes outside wanting to resolve the issue and he sullenly ignores her. The conflict intensifies and a screaming match develops. They let the issue go after two weeks of arguing and a number of threats to leave. This scenario resembles a couple clearly not demonstrating an understanding of each other.
Couples at war, noisy or silent, lose sight of, or never get to know about each other's fears, hurts, concerns, joys, dreams and excitement. And, in case I am sounding smug, the rest of us who think we are doing okay, might miss out if we don't take the time to listen.
Step 1 Ask
'Listening with Your Heart,' is a relatively simple concept, but hard to do when you are overcome with anger, rejection, or just tired and preoccupied. The first step is to go forward and ask your partner what is going on for them. What has led them to being out of sorts, preoccupied, snappy, sullen or withdrawn?
Step 2 What are the feelings?
The second step involves listening to the words, and the feelings that go along with them. Notice the sadness, the tears and the worry. Imagine what it must be like for them. Don't interrupt, or defend your part in the situation and tell them how they should feel or what has led this to happen.
If you understand your partner's perspective (they will let you know), then you have listened with your heart. If you don't understand, listen a bit more, because their acknowledging your understanding means you have passed the litmus test.
Step 3 Acknowledge how they feel
The third step is to validate their perspective. For example, I understand that........... Understanding doesn't mean you agree or support the other person's perspective, it means that you have listened.
Listening is not only a safety device to avoid a relationship collision, it is a luxury accessory to help every relationship grow.
Our Online Relationships Reporter has been involved with Couple and Family Therapy for twenty years.