There are two different ways to listen to our partner – problem-solving listening and empathic listening. Oftentimes we get into conflict because we are not using the type of listening that is needed or expected by our partner, which can result in hurt feelings on both sides. By learning how to utilize both types listening and when to use which type of listening and why, you and your partner will be better able to understand and support each other.
Sarah and Douglas, a couple in their late 30’s, recently came to a couple’s session. They sit down and immediately Sarah says “I can’t get him to listen to me. I try to talk to him more about what’s happening with me like we talked about in the other session, but it’s just not working. He doesn’t have the capacity and I just don’t know what to do anymore.” Clearly, Sarah is very upset.
Douglas, on the other hand, is visibly surprised by her words. He responds with “I don’t understand – I thought we had a great conversation. You talked to me about your work, and I listened and told you what I thought and we were really getting somewhere.” I could see that Sarah and Douglas had very different experiences of their recent conversation, so I asked a few more questions to try to get a better sense of why.
Sarah had a major conflict with a colleague at work and was very concerned about how it would affect their project. When she talked to Douglas about it, he listened and told her what he thought – that she should talk to her boss first to get a strategy for how to handle the situation and only then talk to her colleague, etc. Douglas was trying to be supportive by helping her deal with the situation. Sarah was upset because she didn’t feel that he really understood how upset she was by the situation, and his advice didn’t address that either. This demonstrates the two basic types of listening, and the frustrations couples go through when they are offering one, and the partner wants the other.
Problem-solving listening is aimed at figuring out what’s wrong and giving advice that will prompt the speaker towards action. When using this type of listening, the person will listen just long enough to assess the situation, and then will start offering solutions. The assumption a person makes when engaged in this sort of listening is thinking that when someone complains about something, it’s because they want some advice in order to fix it.
This type of listening is often utilized by action-oriented people who, in general, feel that if there are problems or issues then they need to be resolved. Additionally, if the person identifies strongly with the role of protector in the relationship, they feel a strong urge to reduce their partner’s stress and discomfort by solving the problem. It also may be more comfortable for this listener to act in the face of distress rather than keep listening – it’s not easy to just sit with discomfort. So action-orientation is a tool to get rid of the distress both for the listener’s partner and himself or herself.
Empathy is about listening to the emotions the other person is describing and striving to understand their perspective. A typical question you might use when listening with empathy is “how do you feel about this?” rather than “what do we do about this?”
In addition to being with your partner’s feelings and sharing her or his reality, empathic listening also involves your reflecting back what you understand about those feelings to your partner. As a result, your partner feels supported by you. A phrase such as “wow, that’s awful. If I was you, I would feel the same way” demonstrates that you understand and empathize with your partner, and that you are with them in this moment of distress. When practicing empathic listening, you show that you understand the emotion through your tone of voice and your presence, not by trying to fix the problem. For more information about it see the two most important relationship skills.
In summary, when you’re coming from a problem-solving orientation, you usually respond very quickly to the conversation. The action is more important than the words, and resolving an issue has to do with not doing the same behavior again. With empathic listening, tone of voice and body language are more important. You listen longer and assist your partner in expressing their feelings before you respond so that your partner knows that you understand how they feel and why.
Once Douglas and Sarah understood these two different types of listening, they had better tools for understanding each other. Douglas realized that what Sarah wanted was for him to just listen to her, understand how she was feeling and support her in those feelings. Sarah, in turn, learned that Douglas’ effort to solve the problem was his way of supporting her.