“You never understand what the hell I’m actually yelling at you for!” This was the opening statement a recent wife had in our couple session, moments after sitting down in my office. Each person sat on opposite sides of my wrap-around couch, creating a physical distance that mirrored the frustration and anger apparent in their relationship. She clearly had been waiting a week to say these very words, and effectively created the dialogue of the session before anyone (including myself) had a chance to intervene.
Which of course got me thinking and reflecting; isn’t listening the whole point of therapy? I know therapists pay attention to the value of listening a lot. Let me re-iterate: A LOT. A great blog I check out occasionally talks about how the therapist-client relationship is impacted so incredibly by the therapist’s skill to accurately listen to what clients are talking about without any preconceived notions.
However, doesn’t this really reflect what goes on in the relationships back home? Listening is not innate – it is a specific skill. One that typically does not get taught, at least not formally. I recall many things from school, but my classwork seemed rather devoid of “English-language arts, followed by some math, some practice doing listening homework, and finally that big science project.” I have not made a working volcano since, but I do practice listening daily, ironically enough. Still, I consider myself barely above a novice at actually setting my thoughts aside and fully, completely, listening to someone else. Not hearing what they say, but actually LISTENING.
Have you tried doing this with your partner? Ever? This is not meant sarcastically, I mean deeply, intentionally, listening to them. No judgments, no interpretations, and possibly no feedback even. Just listening to them. I don’t mean for content. “How was your day” can be an opening question to the trivial or to the in-depth. When a therapist asks this question in session, we usually are listening intently for an answer, but not one that is verbally stated. Possible responses may include “oh, everything is fine” or “same old, same old”. Real responses include the nonverbal: tensing of muscles, blinking, increased heart rate, and other signatures that are part of our internal biological system that indicates we are in a “fight or flight mode”. Then, as much as we may be hearing “everything is fine”, we can be listening to “everything is NOT FINE”. Some of these types of listening skills may help when your spouse sits down on the couch and says “You never understand what the hell I’m yelling at you for!”, and you actually pay attention to what the hell they’re talking about…