Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Listen Actively

Dear Steve,

My husband and I have had a communication problem for years—due, I think, to our different communication styles. I crave active conversations, yet he prefers I remain silent and listen any time he has an issue he wants to tell me about. When I begin to talk during what I feel should be a discussion, he tells me I’m not a good listener and shuts down. These conversations are not of a personal nature; they can be about something as simple as what he saw on the way home. I have done my best to remain silent when he speaks because this is what he needs, but I feel we lack communicative interaction as a result. What am I missing here? I am willing to try anything.

Lonesome Listener

Dear Lonesome,

I think many people have experienced some form of this at one time or another—a classic clash of communication preferences or styles. It can manifest itself in a number of different ways. The person with whom you’re talking may repeat the same comment or circle back to the same idea over the course of different conversations, silently brood, or, as in your case, express overall frustration with the interaction. Regardless of the symptoms, the root cause is often the same: you want to move the conversation forward while the person with whom you are speaking isn’t quite ready for that.

With this in mind, I have some suggestions that I think will help. As you think about these ideas, remember that consistently employing them over time is crucial to making them work. It usually takes some time for the other person to recognize a shift in your behavior that feels more permanent.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

It sounds like your husband is trying to convey, “It’s not about you right now, it’s about me—or at least I’d like it to be.” You may want to consider what it is that he really wants in these situations. In my own interactions, I’ve found that some just want to get things out of their head. They just need to process something out loud. They aren’t looking for input, commentary, or any response other than acknowledgement. Often their primary purpose is to be understood. A small shift in how you approach these conversations can make a big difference, especially with some of the conversations that seem more pedestrian.

Put Your Motive Where Your Mouth Is

Here’s where it can get tricky. Most are interested in what their partner is saying but unintentionally send the message that they are not. So while I may chip in with a comment or a perspective to show I’m engaged, my partner sees that as being self-interested. You might be totally focused on what your husband is saying as well as what it means to him, and yet he says you aren’t listening. It’s times like these that drive many people to exclaim, “Serenity Now!”

Fortunately, there are some alternatives to the “Serenity Now!” option and the best are strategies that embody your motive. If what you really want is for your partner to feel deeply understood, then look for skills that clearly communicate that intent. Let me suggest a couple from the Explore skill set within Crucial Conversations, specifically the skill cousins Paraphrase and Prime. Both keep you in the conversation, keep you focused on what your partner is saying, and at the same time communicate respect.

Call on the Cousins

While both Paraphrase and Prime can produce an immediate and measurable impact on an interaction, Paraphrase is the more well-known of the cousins. Simply taking time to repeat back what you’ve heard can have a big impact on your partner. There’s something about hearing your message echoed back to you that really communicates, “I care about what you’re saying.” Instead of formulating a response, focus on what is being said. It’s not only important that you use this skill, but how you use this skill. The message you want to send is not only that you’re staying on track with the conversation, but also that you’re okay with what’s being shared.

Now on to Paraphrase’s less well-known cousin, Prime. You prime the conversation by paraphrasing with a little inference. Priming is where empathy and paraphrasing meet. To do it well you have to put yourself in the other’s position, take what’s been shared, and make an educated guess as to how they are thinking and feeling about the topic. A prime typically starts with something like “Could it be . . . ,” “Are you concerned . . . ,” or “Do you feel . . . ,” followed by your inference. This one’s nice because it allows you to offer your perspective but remain focused on the other person, their point of view, and how it’s impacting them.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you must totally give up your desire to contribute. Just change the mix. See if you can paraphrase and prime until your husband feels understood. Ask him if you got it right, and don’t move ahead until he says he feels you understood.

Good luck,

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9 thoughts on “How to Listen Actively”

  1. Grizzlybearmom

    Aren’t women supposed to need to talk 50,000 words daily and men 30,000? Could it be that you need to speak more words daily than your husband does? Could you ensure that you have adequately talked by the time that he comes home? Is his talking to relieve stress and you are stepping on his words, causing him to hold his stress in? Consider waiting a bit longer to respond than you have in the past and ensure that you speak some of his words back to him (the dog was a Labrador?) and see if that is effective.

    1. Grizzlybearmom

      I experienced this myself. When my husband was deployed to Japan one of the guys at work asked me if I was allowed to talk at home. I didn’t have anyone to talk to at home so perhaps I was talking their ears off at work.

      1. Steve

        That’s an interesting idea, finding outlets throughout the day so when it comes time to interact with your spouse, you can focus on creating a bond. did you every try writing during that time? And if so, did it make any difference?

  2. Tyler

    Judging by how your husband has already been reacting to your input during your conversations, I would say, ‘be careful when you prime’. If you get the prime right – ..”Do you think the new project at work is stressing you out?” – your husband will feel safe, listened-to, and understood.

    However, if you get the prime wrong – …”Do you think you’re feeling this way because of your mother?” – your husband is likely to feel frustrated, misunderstood, and simply shut down the conversation.

    If you have a history of misunderstanding how your husband feels or is communicating about himself (not that it is your fault for misunderstanding), then I would keep your primes far more generic – …”why do you think that is?”… “isn’t that funny?”

    1. Steve

      Priming and I have grown closer over the years. I now have a better understanding of when and how to use it. While I used to believe that I had to nail their specific concern in order for prime to work, I’ve now come to realize that I can be more general in my inference and still be effective. It’s the difference between, “are you upset because of not getting the lead on the project?” and “are you upset with something at work?”

      The key is steering clear of judgement in your inference. When curiosity is your driving motive, I’ve found that even when I’m a little or lot off, my partner feels that I’m trying to understand.

  3. Leisha

    Thank you, Steve! You presented a great approach to this dilemma, and gave a good explanation of paraphrase and prime. I will be looking for better ways I can apply prime in my conversations.

    1. Steve

      Glad you found it useful. Let me know how your experiments go.

  4. George

    Clearly Lonesome does not recognize her need/urge to express her feelings as well. In my experience of marriage it is important to recognize when your spouse needs to unload. In this conversation it is your job to reflect and acknowledge as long as it takes for your spouse to get everything out. Do not offer any advice but ask open ended questions and finish with “thanks for sharing. is there anything else you want to talk about?” If not then you can redirect to what you want to talk about. The point is that you have to take turns and not engage until the first person is finished or they will get frustrated and not feel heard. This can take up to an hour at times if it has been building for a while.

    This is not all the time but only when your spouse is emotionally charged. At other times it’s perfectly fine to go back and forth.

  5. WildcatGrad

    What if you’re not ok with what’s being shared? What if you disagree and don’t want your paraphrasing to be mistaken for agreement?

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