Marriage Help: How to Become a Better Listener in Your Marriage

Irene sought relationship help because of chronic communication problems. In a pleading voice she turned to her husband Steve and said:

“You never listen to me…I don’t want to have to ask you over and over again to do something. I only ‘nag’ because telling you once never seems to matter! I feel like I don’t matter to you anymore.”

As a marriage/couples counselor, I often hear one partner accuse the other of “not listening” (which, overtime, translates into “not caring”).

This communication pattern usually takes the following form:

1. You request something from your spouse/partner;

2. For a period of time s/he follows-through on your request;

3. At some point your spouse/partner becomes less consistent in his/her follow-through;

4. Overtime, his/her lack of follow-through increases until there is no trace that you’ve ever made a request;

5. You then find yourself having to repeat your request (and being accused of “nagging”).

Steps 1-5 play out repeatedly and frustrations mount. A large percentage of marriage and relationship problems can be traced back to this relationship pattern.

A Breakdown in Communication: Work to Become a Better Listener

It’s a simple fact: you (and your love) have a limited ability to hold onto information-and our fast-paced, hectic, information-overload world just adds to the dilemma. What does this mean to your marriage/relationship?

If you listen to thirty different things throughout the course of your day, you may only remember five of them a week later. Some information is more adhesive and more likely to stick in your memory, whereas other information will enter your mind one moment and seem to mysteriously vanish the next.

Because of this fact, your goal as the listener is to increase the adhesiveness of your partner’s message so the information becomes a permanent entry in your mental Rolodex.

It is the responsibility of both the speaker and listener to increase the chances that communication brings about the desired outcome. So whether you are making a request or being asked to do something, there are steps you can take to increase the likelihood that your message will both hit the mark and remain in place.

Relationship Help: 3 steps to increase message adhesiveness

1. Ask for clarification about a request

Asking for clarification serves several important purposes: It helps you get a better sense of what the speaker needs and at the same time it sends the message that you are interested and want to understand what your spouse/partner has to say.

This will make your partner feel that you are fully engaged in the dialogue.

2. Convert the message/request into concrete action steps

As the listener, you need to take the words being directed at you and use them to shape your behavior in a new way. When your partner needs something from you (whether it is to “communicate more”; “listen better”; “be more responsible”), in essence you are being asked to act differently: to either add a new behavior that is absent or stop a behavior that is unwelcome…or both.

So each message you hear should lead you to think about the specific behavior change (action) you need to make in order to fulfill your partner’s request.

3. Mentally review your partner’s message

As the listener, one of your jobs is to make sure the request gets stored on your mental hard-drive and that you have permanent and easy access to the information. You don’t want to continuously fail in the all-important department of reliable follow-through because it keeps slipping your mind. The “I forgot” excuse gets old fast.

One way to increase your follow-through is to rehearse the essential part of your partner’s message. All rehearsal involves repetition. You repeat the message (either to yourself or out loud) over and over again until it becomes more adhesive. This is how people prepare for interviews; how actors memorize movie scripts; how teachers learn the lesson plans they teach; how students learn new information.

Here’s to becoming a better communicator!

Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.

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