Effective Couples Communication: When the Listener Isn’t Listening

There are times when it’s obvious to us that our spouse or partner really isn’t listening—s/he may seem a million miles away or distracted by some other priority. As a couples counselor, I’ve seen firsthand how a breakdown in communication often results from a breakdown in effective listening.

A Beleaguered Listener and a Defensive Speaker

Vincent: I can tell you’re not listening… Jesus, you don’t give a damn about me or my concerns!

Rebecca: I can’t believe you’re doing this now, after the day from hell I had at work. Really, you’re doing this now?! Talk about not giving a damn about someone.

Vincent: Oh, give me a break, you couldn’t care about anyone except yourself. I don’t care what kind of work day you had, you couldn’t care less about me right now!

Rebecca: I am so done with this BS!! I’m out of here…

This painful interaction (or some version of it) may feel familiar to you—feeling unimportant to your spouse/partner, feeling like s/he just doesn’t care about you. In the example above, the fact is that Rebecca wasn’t listening (or to be fair, she was only partially listening), but the question we should consider is the way in which Vincent dealt with his wife’s listening error.

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of emotional presence as a listener and the benefits this has on effective couples communication. Clearly Rebecca wasn’t being attentive as her husband spoke, and she’d be the first to admit that she faltered in this instance (if she wasn’t being attacked for her lack of presence). And yes, as a listener, she did have certain responsibilities (like being attentive) that could have moved the communication along. That said, her husband (as the speaker) could have clearly handled this situation differently.

An Empathic Speaker, a Compassionate Listener

Let’s replay the above exchange, but this time, let’s show Vincent doing something a little differently.

Vincent [ready to share something with his wife, but looking pensive and pausing instead]: Hey, are you OK? You seem really distracted, like something’s on your mind. [Instead of becoming defensive and attacking his wife for not listening, Vincent checks in with her.]

Rebecca: You’re right. I’m just exhausted from work; it was a rough day. You know what, let me unwind a few minutes and then I’ll be more engaged. Is that OK? [Feeling understood, Rebecca moves into negotiation mode rather than defensive mode.]

Vincent: Sure, just let me know when you’re ready–I have something important I’d like to share…

Rebecca: Thanks, honey.

In this example, Vincent (in the role of speaker wanting his wife’s attention) took a moment to check in with her to see if she was emotionally ready to listen, and in doing so, a non-defensive, caring exchange emerged between them—in short, each felt listened to and understood, rather than criticized.

A communication truism is that criticism often begets criticism (as in example number one above); while understanding begets understanding (or the desire to understand another—as in the second example).

So the next time you sense your partner isn’t really present while you are talking to him/her, try to gently check in with him/her to see what is going on and what might be needed to turn a potential breakdown in communication into a moment of mutual consideration. The payoff is that in doing so, you are more likely to get your own needs met in the process. A win-win for all!

Communication Resource

For in-depth information about couples communication strategies, check out my communication workbook.

Until next time!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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