How to Deeply Listen to Your Partner Complain About You… and Why You Should Get Good at This!
By Tara Rullo, LCSW
One of the hardest things to do in any relationship is to take in negative feedback. If it is our spouse or partner who is giving us feedback, especially if the feedback contains a complaint, we often react with defensiveness. While defensiveness is a natural response, it is one we must train ourselves out of if we want to create a safe environment for communication.
Let’s look at an example. Perhaps your partner lets you know that they are frustrated because you haven’t cleaned up your dishes from your last meal. You might have a defensive reaction such as launching into an explanation of how busy you have been with more important things and say something like, “I thought you knew how busy I am with work this week!”. Or, you might lodge a counter complaint such as, “well you leave your clothes in a pile by the bed so you have no right to complain about my dishes”. These kinds of defensive or counter-complaining responses are a one-way street leading to arguments or communication shut-downs, neither of which serve you or the health of your relationship. So what are you supposed to do when your partner is complaining about you to you?
The answer is that you should listen. Really, deeply listen. Because after all, this is your partner, and they are upset. And pretty soon, you will have a complaint for your partner and you will want them to deeply listen to you.
Deep listening is an intentional choice and takes practice. Below are four steps you and your partner can practice. Before you start, it can be helpful to acknowledge to one another that you will not get this perfectly each time, especially in the beginning. Learning to deeply listen can feel vulnerable and awkward. That’s okay and quite normal! The important thing is to keep trying, have patience with yourself and one another along the way.
1. Create a safe space:
Before you begin to listen to your partner, ensure that there are no distractions, and that you are fully present in the moment. Muti-tasking does not work here! It can be helpful to explicitly state your availability by saying something like, “I’m available and ready to listen now.”
2. Mirror your partner’s words:
When your partner is finished speaking, repeat back what they have said to you. This gives them the sense that you have been listening and gives you the opportunity to ask if you have understood everything they wanted to express.
3. Validate your partner’s feelings:
It’s important to let your partner know that their feelings are valid, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. An example of validation is, “I understand why seeing the dishes on the counter was upsetting for you. I get that it’s hard for you to come home with the groceries in order to make dinner and find a mess in the kitchen.”
4. Practice empathy:
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. This means setting aside your own biases and judgments and truly listening to your partner’s point of view. This can be really hard, especially if you are feeling hurt. It helps to remember that even if you don’t feel like offering empathy, you should do it anyway, because it works! Empathy generates more empathy and the hard work you do to offer an empathetic ear to your partner will engender more empathy that will be returned to you when you need it.
Deep listening is a skill you can learn on your own, but if you and your partner are struggling to listen to one another, couples therapy can help.