You might be surprised to learn 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 ways of listening and understanding when to use each type (and why), you and your partner will be primed to better understand and support each other.

Sarah and Douglas, a couple in their late 30’s, 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 create a strategy on 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 problem-solving vs. empathic listening, and the frustrations couples go through when they are offering one, but the partner wants the other.