Almost as soon as we posted the piece on how to bring up difficult topics, a reader asked “But how do I get my husband to listen?”
It’s an excellent question, and we put it to our friend Ann McKnight, a social worker and psychotherapist. Her answer might surprise you. If you feel like you’re not being heard, you might want to look at yourself first. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this really about me getting my way?’ If it is, you’re virtually guaranteed the conversation won’t go anywhere,” she says. “Most of the time, we engender defensiveness in the other person because of the way we say things.”
That defensiveness shuts down the opportunity for real communication, and the conversation ends before you’ve gotten to the issue, even if you’re still talking. That defensiveness is rooted in fear—fear of being judged, criticized, blamed, shamed, cut off. Just as fear interferes with our willingness to bring up difficult issues, it interferes with the other person’s willingness and even ability to really listen. Fear is the ultimate intimacy blocker.
Your genuine desire to understand what’s going on with the other person is critical to that person’s listening skills. Arriving and hanging onto that desire while you’re talking about a touchy subject isn’t easy, but it is possible.
Here are three things Ann says you can do to improve the chances that your beloved will be able to hear what you’re saying.
Be curious. That thing your loved one is doing? He or she is probably doing it for a good reason. “The conversation needs to be ‘There are clearly some things about this behavior that are working for you, so let’s talk about those.’ After you connect about those reasons, then you have a more interested audience. Repeat the reasons back in a nonjudgmental way, and then ask if the person is willing to hear what’s not working for you. If you can get to that place, then you have an opportunity for an open dialogue.”
Make sure you’re staying connected. “That means the other person is experiencing that I am in a place that’s open to hearing them. It doesn’t mean I have to agree. Only that I care if they are feeling judged and I care about their thoughts,” says Ann.
If the other person hears judgment or criticism or blame—even if you don’t think you’re conveying any of that—the connection will be lost. Increase your chances of maintaining the connection by, at the outset of the conversation, saying something like: “I have something to share with you and I’m not coming from a place of criticism [or blame or whatever], so if you could raise your hand when you’re feeling that, then I can reassure you in the moment or I can say, ‘You’re right. I am being critical.’”
Let go of the outcome. Finally, go into the conversation with absolutely no attachment to the outcome, and keep an open mind the entire time. Once you hear what it is about the other person’s behavior that is working for them, says Ann, “your attachment to ‘You need to stop this right now’ changes and you think, ‘Maybe, given what works for other person, there’s a different way to solve this.’”
Throughout the conversation, keep demonstrating to the other person that the conversation is not just about you getting your way. “You keep throwing them a lifeline by asking ‘What is it like for you to hear what I just said?’ That shows the person that you actually care about their response to what you’re saying.”
Throw that lifeline enough times and your partner just might start throwing it back to you. That’s not just a way to resolve a difficult issue—it’s also the way to increased intimacy.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.