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Active Listening: Slice It Thinner

Active Listening: Slice It Thinner

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The middle-aged couple sat in front of me, preparing to participate in a three day Marriage Intensive. They had participated in weekly counseling situations several times over the years, but always left feeling they had received a Bandaid for their problems, and no real cure.

Cary was a gruff, weathered fifty year old man who made it clear he didn’t really want to be here, and his wife Maggie didn’t seem a lot more excited. Both feigned enthusiasm, but it was quite obvious their emotional struggle had taken its toll on them.

“We feel pretty drained,” Maggie admitted. “We’ve been battling each other for years, and this is a last-ditch effort to save things. We’re both prepared to just be done if this doesn’t work.”

Cary nodded his head, his face showing no emotion.

“How about you?” I asked him. “Where are you at?”

“I’ve prepared myself for anything,” he said. “We’ve got thirty years invested in each other, so I don’t want it to end. But this is draining.”

“What is draining?” I asked curiously.

“She seems angry all the time,” Cary said. “I can’t do anything to please her. I think she wants somebody else, and I’d rather give her the freedom she wants than fight with her.”

“Hold it,” Maggie blurted. “It’s you who I want. But I want you to really care about me. I want you to get me. I want you and a marriage where we care about and hear each other.”

“I have a question for both of you,” I said. “I’d like you to think about this. Maggie, do you believe that Cary really listens to and understands you? Cary, do you believe that Maggie really listens to you and understands you?”

Both started shaking their head before I could call upon them.

“You both had a quick reaction to my question. I sense some voltage in you, like this might be a ‘hot spot’. Let’s talk about your answers."

We spent the next two hours not only talking about their disappointment with each other, but practicing a new way of listening to each other that I call "slicing it thinner." Both felt considerably better after our exercise and agreed to try it during the break before our next session. Here are the steps.

First, put your defensiveness aside. Okay, this is much easier said than done, but if you do not turn down the volume on the "yes, but……..” you can never really hear what your mate is saying. You must acknowledge your defensiveness—the part of you that feels threatened, vulnerable, upset about what your mate is saying. Tell yourself this interference will stop you from being fully present to your mate.

Second, acknowledge the heart of what they are saying. Having turned down the volume on your defensiveness, repeat to them what you heard them say. “So, you’re saying………..” Repeat this until you’ve accurately reflected the heart of what they are saying. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do have to understand it.

Third, slice it thinner. This means you ask questions so you understand the fullness of what they are saying. “Are you saying…?” “Do you mean...?” Cary learned to listen to Maggie, reflecting to her that he understood her feelings of exhaustion and frustration at his defensiveness. Maggie learned that Cary felt disrespected when she became angry and made accusations against him. Both learned to slow things down so they could more easily hear their mate.

Fourth, keep the emotion manageable. Nothing prevents true listening like heated emotion. Anger tends to narrow our focus, exaggerate our responses and pit us against our mate. Discouragement can lead us to hear only the worst part of what our mate is saying to us. Every couple longing to be listened to must keep their emotion manageable. They must learn to call Time Outs if necessary to make certain they are in an emotional space to hear their mate.

Fifth, slowly digest the truth of what they are saying.  Keeping your defensiveness volume turned down, or set aside, you consider what your mate is saying. While you may want to argue with your mate, don’t. Consider what they are saying and the truth of it. If you cannot digest and agree with all of what your mate is saying, see if you can agree with a "kernel of truth" in what they are saying. Reflect to your mate that you hear the value of what they are saying to you.

Scripture tells us that we should be “quick to listen and slow to speak.” (James 1: 19) This certainly goes against our innate tendency to be quick to speak and slow to listen. Healthy couples perfect the art of listening, and this not only diffuses conflict but creates a powerful, loving connection. Try "slicing it thinner" and notice the impact on both you and your mate.

I’d love to hear from you.

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.