Practicing reflective listening and conveying you are understanding your partner is a crucial skill in de-escalating conflict and resolving arguments. Yet it’s also difficult and involves pitfalls that can pull a couple into a negative cycle.
One misconception for couples that are learning this way of being with each other is this – “if I communicate my understanding to my partner, it means that I have to agree with their assessment of things. And often I don’t.”
And conventional wisdom would say this is true. If someone says something that we deem is incorrect, it is wise and right to call out their error and correct them, right? If we don’t, then we’re letting falsehoods pass for truths, which is unacceptable.
Understanding Your Partner Involves Sharing Feelings
Communication generally goes better in a relationship when people share more about their feelings than they do their perceptions. But even when perceptions are shared, the receiving partner can communicate their understanding of what their partner shared without agreeing with or judging whether it’s right or wrong.
It could go something like this…
I did this for you and you didn’t show appreciation to me for doing it.
(in a stance of needing to debate the merit or truth of the perception) I don’t agree with you. I did show appreciation. You just didn’t like the way I did it.
You can probably see that this discussion is on its way to an argument.
But what if the response was something more like this:
It sounds like you’re feeling under-appreciated. You did this for me and you didn’t get the acknowledgment from me you were expecting.
In this second example, you are restating what you heard from your partner without judging the truth or merits of it. You’re letting them know you heard them.
The other important thing that happened here is that you as the receiver named feelings that were unspoken by partner 1 but definitely felt and shared indirectly. This kind of response de-escalates things and takes the communication to a deeper level. When this happens, the question of who’s perception of the exchange is ‘right’ becomes irrelevant.
There’s a pretty good chance that, now that your partner has felt heard, they’ll be open to and able to hear about your experience of the conversation and your feelings.
It’s like being a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermometer is reactive – it just reacts to the temperature in the room. But a thermostat takes it a step further – it recognizes the temperature and then makes adjustments to bring about equilibrium and comfort. To practice this way of being with your partner requires a few things – 1) a trust in your partner’s good intentions and 2) an awareness of feelings that lie underneath comments and observations.