Ask Elizabeth: Listening Effectively

Elizabeth Brennan

Whenever I am asked by friends or colleagues how my relationship is going, I usually reply “Fine … It’s good!” And, in a lot of ways, I suppose it is good, that is, except for one annoying bit: things go a bit awry when my partner has difficulty in telling me what is troubling him.

This often occurs in an evening and usually after a hectic day at work. He’ll say something like “I’ve had a lousy day!” I usually try to laugh it off as, more often than not, mine has been lousy also and, as far as I’ concerned, the solution is to get over it. I just want to chill out, relax. But he goes all sullen and barely speaks to me for the rest of the night. It drives me bonkers.

Helpless Harry

Busy days at work – especially when an incident has occurred between colleagues or bosses – can be debilitating and, yes, we might often want to just ‘chill’ out: a nice glass of red or whatever, a tasty meal, maybe a good movie or other relaxing ventures.

We certainly might not want to be bothered with our partner’s issues. However, perhaps it’s at times like this when we do need to ask the all-important question: Is my relationship central to me? What – or who – is the significant part of my life? My relationship?

At the end of a busy day, you might not be open to a deep and meaningful conversation. Nevertheless, there are some simple ways in which you can respond with more empathy to your partner’s communication. Effective listening could be one of them.

If your partner comes home from work and complains that he has had a lousy day, you could put aside your desire to brush it off and say something like: “Tell me about it.” If nothing else, your reply would give the message that you do care. He might then be willing to brush it off himself or go into more detail. You don’t have to take things on board – but you can give him the gift of being there for him.

We don’t need a degree in linguistics to improve our communication and relationship skills; some basic disciplines can make a big difference.

  • Don’t be ‘solution focused’. If we believe we have to come up with an answer to a problem, this can deter us from wanting to involve ourselves – our partner can feel ‘brushed off’;
  • Suspend judgment: just allow him ‘to be’;
  • It could involve just putting down the paper we are reading and just give him our full attention;
  • It may involve us trying to understand how the other feels about what has happened, rather than focusing on the facts themselves;
  • It might also involve us noticing whatever it is that is distracting us and consciously putting it aside.

Yes, you have had a ‘lousy’ day as well; you are tired, you want to relax. You just want to get to the bottom of whatever is troubling your partner and moving on.

You can show genuine interest by letting him know that you are prepared to listen – that you are not concerned with ‘problem solving’.

Maybe suggest that you pour a glass first, then sit down comfortably – and just ‘be’ there for him. You possibly don’t have to ‘do’ anything else. That’s what you and your partner are – human ‘beings’. In a relationship.

Elizabeth Brennan

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