Week 3: Use Your Ears to Resolve Conflicts

Sarah awoke in a sunny mood. Today she would lunch at her favorite restaurant with her best friend. Her mood rapidly clouded when she tripped on her husband's dirty clothes, crumpled on the floor beside the bed. In the bathroom, she found a wet towel thrown in the tub and toothpaste globs in the sink. Her anger began rising like mercury in the sun. She breathed deeply, counted to fifty and headed for the kitchen, where she was faced with a table littered with crumbs, an empty milk carton saluting her from the counter, and dirty dishes in the sink. She reached for the phone and pounded out her husband's work number. He answered with a cheerful hello.

"You've done it again," she shouted.
"What's your problem?" he replied.
"I'm not your maid, that's my problem. How many times have I asked you to pick up after yourself?"
"You're off the wall. Maybe you should see a shrink."
"You've got nerve calling me a nut, you pig," she shouted into a dead line.

What went wrong? For starters, Sarah and her husband were clearly not listening to each other during this exchange.

God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen more and speak less.

On the road to conflict resolution, listening is the superhighway. Not surprisingly, listening is nearly absent in conflicted relationships. Here's why: Most people have not been taught conflict resolution skills. When a conflict arises, "discussions" cycle out of control and no resolution occurs. This leaves you terminally ticked off, which means that the next time your hot topic resurfaces, you are more likely to blast your mate rather than initiate a constructive discussion. When you come at him with both barrels, his natural reaction is to put up his dukes rather than prick up his ears. Since he's not listening to you, you turn up the volume, hoping to blast the wax from his ears. But the louder you get, the less he listens. Instead, he resorts to defending, justifying and counterattacking. This infuriates you even more, so you crank up the volume and -- no big surprise -- he becomes even more deaf, more defensive and more confrontational. In no time, you have a major vicious cycle on your hands.

Next page: How to break free from the cycle

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How can you break free of this cycle? Learn to listen to each other. Before I teach you how to do that, we need to identify and eliminate the three behaviors that are polar opposites of good listening. They are defending, justifying and counterattacking (turning the tables). Let me give you some examples:

Defending and Justifying: Mary tells Peter that she is hurt because he forgot her birthday. Instead of listening and understanding her pain, he defends and justifies his mistake by saying, "I had a good reason for forgetting. I got caught up preparing our taxes and I forgot to check my calendar."

Counterattacking: Mary tells John that she is upset because he forgot to take his turn grocery shopping. Instead of listening and understanding, John counterattacks by saying, "Well, you forgot to wash my laundry yesterday."

Why do so many couples resort to defending, justifying and counterattacking instead of listening? In distressed relationships, listening has been lacking for so long that the partners feel starved to be heard. Not trusting that the other will listen, they both jump in at the same time, shoving their points down each other's throats. Yet listening is the cement of a happy marriage. To avoid divorce, you must vow to move heaven and earth to do a better job of truly hearing each other.

Next page: How to be a good listener

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How to Be a Good Listener
In order to make this vow a reality, you and your partner must take turns being the speaker and the listener. The next time a conflict arises, let the partner with the gripe have the Emotional Right of Way to speak first. Don't worry, the listener will get his or her turn to be heard, too. When the speaker feels completely heard and understood, it's time to switch roles.

It's important for me to point out that being a good listener is more than passing a hearing test. If a listener merely sits quietly and says nothing in response, the speaker will think that she or he is talking to a gerbil. Good listeners convey, in various ways, that they have heard and understood what has been said. To become good listeners, both you and your partner must learn the following three skills.

1. Mirroring: The listener restates exactly what has been said. The listener must be careful not to overuse this skill, or else he will sound like Polly the Parrot. Here's what mirroring sounds like:
Speaker: I am so sad that my boss is retiring.
Listener: You're sad that your boss is retiring.

2. Restating: The listener repeats, in his or her own words, what the speaker has said.
Speaker: I am so sad that my boss is retiring.
Listener: Your boss's retirement really has you down, huh?

3. Questioning to Clarify: The listener questions (not challenges) the speaker to make sure he or she is clear on what the speaker has said. If the listener has understood, the speaker confirms that fact. If the listener is off the mark, the speaker restates his or her position, and once again, the listener asks questions until there is a meeting of minds.

If you were to diagram the Questioning to Clarify skill, it would look like loops within loops. The listener's job is to keep looping back until the speaker and the listener are on the same page -- meaning that the listener has completely understood the speaker.
Speaker: I am so sad that my boss is retiring.
Listener: You're really going to miss him, huh?
Speaker (restating the position): I don't know if I'll miss him. It's more that I won't have an ally once he's gone.
Listener (clarifying question): You mean that you will feel unprotected once he's gone.
Speaker: Exactly (confirming that a meeting of the minds has been reached).

A word of caution: A good listener does not pass judgment on what the speaker is saying. I can't tell you how many times "listeners" tell me, "But I don't agree with how he feels." I always caution listeners that feelings aren't wrong or right. Feelings are like the wind. They blow -- east and west, north and south. You never think of saying to the wind, "You are wrong to blow east." The same applies to feelings -- they need to be understood and accepted by the speaker, nothing more.

Next page: Why he has trouble listening

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Listening Roadblocks
Sometimes a man fails in his attempts to listen because he simply can't understand why his mate feels the way she does about a given situation. If either of you finds it hard to understand why your mate feels the way he or she does about a given situation, the following exercise will help you put yourself on your mate's emotional side of the fence.

Forget the particular situation that is upsetting your mate and instead focus on the feelings he is having. Now, think of a situation that has triggered similar feelings in you. When you are on the same emotional page as your mate, you will find it easier to identify with and to listen to his feelings.

Guilt is another common listening roadblock, especially for men. When a man finds out that he said or did something to upset you, all his bells and whistles go off. Don't forget, he was socialized to protect and care for his wife and children. Now you're telling him that he failed in his job as a man and husband. So his guilt is working overtime. This causes him to switch into the other role that he was socialized to play -- the doer and fixer. Now he makes it his job to make your boo-boo go bye-bye. Unfortunately, since he has not been socialized to handle the emotional side of life, he is clueless on how to ease your pain. So the poor lug resorts to sentences like "Don't feel that way" or "Don't be upset." Unfortunately, these responses infuriate most women. Being told to "get over it" is majorly annoying when all you want is to be heard and understood. Have patience with your guilt-riddled macho man. Remember, he only wants to make you feel better. He just doesn't know how to go about doing so.

The following sentence will help most men grasp that the way to fix your pain is to simply listen and understand -- nothing more. Here goes: "I know you want me to feel better. Just listening is all I need." Try it and see what happens. If he still finds it hard to listen to you, the following hypothetical situation may help your man understand what you need: "If you accidentally trip over my foot and break it, my foot still hurts and I need to be consoled. I know you didn't mean to hurt (or upset) me, but I still need you to understand my pain."

I have mentioned only a few of the many roadblocks to good listening. You will find a complete discussion of how to overcome all the impasses to good listening in my book Til Death Do Us Part (Unless I Kill You First).

This week, I've taught you good listening skills and given you some ideas of how to overcome your husband's listening blocks. Before I close this week's workshop, I want to let you know that you have a huge "say" in whether your husband listens to you or not. It is your job to communicate your thoughts and feelings in a way that makes him want to listen. This will be the subject of next week's workshop. Tune in then.

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