Top Three Listening Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Top Three Listening Mistakes and How to Avoid Them: Your ears are more powerful in your relationship than you may realize.

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Top Three Listening Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Top Three Listening Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Picture of Nathan Cobb, <small>Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych</small>

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Registered Psychologist and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist

Your ears are more powerful in your relationship than you may realize. The power of your ears lies in their ability to help you create connection with your partner and to help your partner feel secure, heard, and understood in the relationship.

Unfortunately, many of us struggle with active listening. We make common mistakes that hinder our ability to connect and communicate effectively with each other. This is partly due to our drive for self-protection and self-preservation that overrides our ability to make space for our partner’s reality in the moment that we feel threatened. In this article, I explore three very common listening mistakes that you might be making and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Staying in Self-Protective Mode while You Listen

When your spouse is speaking about a vital issue that impacts him or her, there are two things that you can be listening to: 1) the picture of your partner’s world painted by your partner, as your partner experiences it, both the subtle and the broad brush strokes, or 2) your own thoughts as you formulate a rebuttal or what you’re going to say next. We most often fall into the second category when we feel under attack. We want to defend ourselves. In the strict sense of the word, we are sort of listening—enough to take in the words our spouse is using—but we are not listening to the whole story about our partner’s experience and our mind is not open. We are in self-protective mode.

In self-protective mode we do several things that stop effective listening. We interrupt. We formulate a rebuttal in our head. We assume that our partner’s pause means it is our turn to speak and we counter some detail they just said. We state rational sounding reasons for our actions to justify ourselves. We assume that if we don’t speak up and make a counter argument right away that our silence implies guilt on our part or that we are giving our partner the last word.

Not chiming in right away, however, doesn’t mean you see your partner’s story as the final word on the matter. It means you are increasing your capacity to make room for and have an open mind to your partner’s subjective experience. You can strengthen your listening muscles in this area by slowing down and working on opening your mind. Breathe deeply and slowly from your belly. Exhale out your mouth in a long and slow breath. Remind yourself that you won’t lose yourself by listening. Then do your best to set aside your own perspective and enter the world of your partner for an extended period. Try to cultivate a curious mindset instead of a closed mindset by asking open-ended questions. Asking curious questions is also a good way to manage the anxiety you might be feeling about communicating about a potentially sticky subject.

Mistake #2: Going Straight to Pragmatic Problem-Solving when there is Some Rift in the Relationship Itself, Such as When Your Partner is Not Feeling Understood or Seen

Another common mistake that people make when trying to listen to their partner is to jump straight into offering a pragmatic solution to a problem, even when the problem is more complex and involves a deeper emotional component. This can happen when one partner is feeling unheard or unseen, and instead of addressing the underlying emotional issue, the other partner offers a practical fix.

While practical solutions can be helpful in some situations, it is important to first acknowledge and validate the emotions of your partner and show that you are actively trying to understand his or her deeper relational or emotional needs. These needs are often about underlying themes that run like a current throughout the relationship and get exposed through seemingly mundane or “practical” matters. Examples of such themes are too numerous to mention here fully, but they include the need to feel seen, the desire for connection, or the need to feel good enough and accepted. Taking the time to understand the emotional components of a problem, viewing the solution to a problem as existing in the relationship first rather than in a pragmatic fix, helps build a healthier, stronger relationship.

For example, lets look in on John and Jane, who have been together for a few years. Lately, Jane has been feeling increasingly insecure in the relationship. She often feels she is not good enough for John and is worried that he might leave her for someone else. Jane has tried to bring up her concerns, but John responds by telling her that she is beautiful and fun to be with and that he doesn’t want to be with anyone else. John means well in his reassurance, but what Jane really craves is for John to validate her feelings and show her that he understands how she is feeling. John’s sympathetic reassurance only makes her feel misunderstood and unheard, which is also discouraging for John as he sees her pull away despite his goal to reassure her.

An example of what John could say might be, “I can see that this is really difficult for you. It must be hard for you to feel this way, thinking I’m going to leave. I understand that you’re feeling insecure. Can you tell me more about it? I would like to try and understand what makes you feel this way. It is important to me that you feel more confident and secure in our relationship.”

Mistake #3: Being Too Certain and Not Curious

A third pattern we follow that undermines effective listening is assuming that there is one right way of viewing an event and “I have it.” We listen as though what is obvious to us should be obvious to the other person. But everyone sees the world differently. We all have different perspectives and experiences that shape our interpretations.

When we assume that the other person sees the world the same way we do, or should, our certainty about that stops us from truly listening, and we risk missing important details that could help us better understand the other person’s point of view. This mistake can also lead to frustration and contention because we may become defensive when the other person doesn’t see things our way.

To listen more effectively, it is essential to be curious and open-minded, part of which involves asking open-ended questions that you don’t already know the answer to, and seeking with genuine intent to understand the other person’s perspective. We must be willing to put aside our own assumptions and biases, as best we can, and seek to understand the other person’s emotions and motivations. This helps us build empathy and rapport, which can lead to more productive and positive interactions.

For an example, lets look in on a couple, Sophie and Max. Max had been hurt by something Sophie had said while visiting friends, that made him feel thrown under the bus. He had been struggling with how to bring it up to her without starting a fight, but finally decided to try. He began by saying, “Sophie, can we talk about something that’s been bothering me?”

Sophie could see that Max looked nervous and worried. She knew it was hard for him to bring things up like this and she wanted to be there for him. “Of course, Max,” she said, giving him a reassuring smile. “What is on your mind?”

Max took a deep breath. Using I-statements, he spoke of how and why he felt stung by her comments while trying not to make assumptions about her intentions. Sophie listened with genuine curiosity, trying to understand what had upset him.  She asked him clarifying questions so he would know she was really trying to understand his perspective. As Max talked more, Sophie could see that he was getting to the root of the issue and she came to understand that it had a lot to do with his insecurities. She also recognized how she could be more mindful in the future of having his back in public. It was clear to them both that if she had not listened with curiosity, the deeper issue would have been missed. In the end, Max felt better and was grateful that Sophie had listened without judgment and addressed his feelings with understanding. Sophie also felt successful in being a source of support to him.

The bottom line is that open-hearted listening can be a powerful way to help your partner feel loved and connected to you. It requires that you slow down and try not to let your self-protective instincts take over. It means not going straight to problem-solving, when the problem is some rift in the relationship itself. The solution to that rift lies not in advice-giving but in empathy and validation so that your partner experiences you making a genuine effort to understand them. Finally, it involves letting go of certainty that your own view of the situation is the only right one. Following these guidelines can bring both of you closer together.