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Listening with an Open Heart

by Nancy Billias, MA

"I don't know what to say to her anymore. We never do anything but argue. I don't even feel like we're speaking the same language half the time. It's like: when the comment leaves me, it was fine, maybe a compliment even; but by the time it gets to her, she takes it as an insult. What happens?"

"He seems to have NO CLUE how hurtful it is, the things he says to me. The littlest thing starts it up, and we end up screaming at each other. I don't want to go on like this."

Communication -- what a concept. You know how it is: You come home late from work, and all you want to do is crash and spend a little quiet time with me. And I (who got home about two hours ago), bounce up from my easy chair and say, "Hi darlin', I just talked to Sherry. Want to go out?" All of a sudden, your nice little daydream of me rubbing your feet while we sip a glass of wine goes poof! And you feel TOTALLY unappreciated. Here you are, working late so that we can go to Barbados in February like we planned, and I don't even seem to see you, to notice how tired you are, how much you've been looking forward to being with me and telling me about your day. All I've been doing (you imagine) is telling Sherry how boring you are because you work too much, and never want to go out and party with my friends. Maybe you think I'm tired of you, don't find you attractive, want to go out and check out somebody else.

The unspoken conversation

What you didn't say:

  1. I missed you all day; I just want to sit quietly with you and run my fingers through your hair.
  2. Your timing needs work; let me get in the door and relax, then we'll be on an even footing and can make plans.
  3. We agreed that we would go out three times a week to save money; we've already been out three times this week.
  4. Hi there, I love you. How was your day?

But you don't tell me any of that. Instead you just say quietly, "No, not tonight." And instead of listening to what you didn't say, I go on with my plans: "Well, if you don't feel like going out, can I take your car? Mine has no gas in it. And can you lend me a twenty so I don't have to go to the ATM?"

What I didn't say:

  1. Hi there, I love you. How was your day?
  2. I got home early, and this house is so empty without you! I'm so glad you're home.
  3. I made dinner. Are you hungry?
  4. Sherry called; she wanted to go out, but I said I'd wait til you got home and see what you wanted to do. I also told her we're trying to budget, so we might want to wait til the weekend. I don't have any money to go out, because I was planning on sticking to our budget plan.

At this point, instead of listening to what I didn't say, you go up in flames. "Why the hell can't you manage your money better? And you're too old to be going out to clubs five nights a week! You're acting like an irresponsible teenager! When are you going to grow up?"

To which I respond, "You are turning into a boring old nag! I hate being with you!"

You've only been home five minutes, and the battle has begun again.

Slowing down a fire...

It is so simple it could make you cry: the most important and loving thing that partners can do for one another is communicate. That means two things: saying what you mean, clearly and specifically; and listening, just as carefully and specifically, and not just to a person's words, but to the whole world of meaning that you, as their partner, know they carry. We are so careless with words, and even more careless about listening.

In the scene I described above -- one which was played out in my office just last week -- a tiny incident blew up into a full scale argument, complete with tears and slammed doors, which nobody won. The ruined evening was one more rip in an already unraveling relationship. In the safety and calm of the office it was easy for both people to slow way down and rethink the unspoken communication behind each step of the conflagration. They were both able to think of several responses that might have revealed more to each what the other was really thinking. My hope is that maybe next time they will be able to slow themselves down a little more in the moment and listen for what is going on behind the words, and if they can't hear it, ask for clarification. All too often, arguments take on a momentum of their own, building and mushrooming, while the original point of contention is buried and forgotten.

And then the smoke gets in your eyes

This tendency goes under many names. One of my favorites is "globalizing." In the example above, the original point of annoyance lay in a simple disjuncture of moods. Instead it billowed into a whole world of anger, with both attacking each other's characters, and ended in both parties wondering why they are even together! They constructed a whole world of negativity out of a single speck of irritation. Another favorite term of mine is "murkiness." Each one charges forward into the argument, sure that s/he knows what the other means, nobody stops to correct the faulty assumption, and so we stumble blindly on past each other, until one or the other of us is lost, or we both are.

Listening with an open heart

Listening can take care of a lot of the murkiness in relationships. If I approach you from the standpoint of listening, it means that I am open to you. I am going to try to put what you want first, rather than trying to bend you to what I want, and I trust you to do the same for me. Second, open listening means that I am going to see the whole you, and attend to you on many levels, not just the surface. I will not react immediately to what you say, but sift it through what I know about you and how you think and handle situations. Our happiness is based, not on either of us getting our way in a particular instance but rather on our using every interaction as an opportunity to learn more about each other. Third, and perhaps most importantly, an attitude of open listening means that I am striving for clarity. This means that I will not approach you thinking that I already know what you are going to say. Rather, I will be free enough to let you surprise me, reveal to me something new about yourself, or just possibly, about me.

Murkiness and revelation are mutually exclusive. The more light there is, the more I am going to see, and the better I will be able to tell where we are both coming from and going to. Murkiness and listening are also mutually exclusive. If I maintain an attitude of open listening, there is no way that I am going to be hurt, confused, trapped, or disappointed by you, because we will both clearly say what we want. And in the interests of clarity, when we do disagree, we stick to the point, instead of encouraging the mushroom effect. We deal with one thing at a time, because that is all we can handle when we are listening carefully.

This kind of listening is the single best tool I know for building and sustaining a relationship. It is a skill that too few couples have. It isn't hard to learn, but it takes time, and a willingness to maintain a disciplined attitude in the heat of an argument. It also demands a certain commitment to remaining vulnerable to the other person. But that is also how some people, at least, would define love.

Nancy Billias is a Psychotherapist in Northampton, MA. For more information about her practice, see her directory listing.

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