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Can You Hear Me Now?

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After being married for over 25 years, Bill and I have a comfortable relationship, maybe too comfortable. We can’t seem to communicate anymore; we hear each other, but do not listen! Whatever I tell him, he responds “you never told me that” or there are things he never mentions and then tells me “I told you that, you just don’t remember. Maybe it’s the menopause.” We wind up arguing over every little thing when he reacts that way. I am 49 and at this stage of life I thought after the kids were grown, we would be able to have an adult conversation. How can I talk so he will really listen?
Carol from Red Bank

Bill, are you listening? Aren’t men great at tuning out selective conversations and refusing to take responsibility for their rudeness? And because the best defense is a good offense, Bill resorts to convincing Carol that it is her fault. But wait, is it also possible that Carol also has a problem listening to Bill? Is she always interested in everything Bill has to say, hanging on his every word? I bet most of you reading this article probably agree the problem is Bill. He is just being a typical man. After all, Carol is only asking for conversation with her best friend and all they end up talking about is who is the worst listener. That conversation gets old very quickly.

Unfortunately, Carol and Bill are not alone. We have a real problem in our society hearing each other. Although listening accounts for 50% of our communication time, we only retain 25% of what the other person says. That fact does not bode well for married couples who are struggling to have genuine conversations with each other. When we speak to our spouses, we are often distracted. Not only are we distracted by our own thoughts, emotions and perceptions, but we also react to our spouse’s tone of voice and their body language.

For Carol and for all of the spouses out there who are in a similar predicament, there is hope. Carol needs to convince Bill that they have to change their conversation. In order to avoid fighting about the same old issue they have to decide that they want to hear each other. I’m sure that if Bill reads this article, he would realize that this is an important part of his marriage that needs to change. After a couple decides they want to change the way they speak to each other, the rest is easy.

Carol, Bill and the rest of us have to learn how to become active listeners. Active listening involves the listener paying full attention to the speaker and repeating or summarizing what they hear without evaluating or interpreting. This also allows the speaker to further clarify their point without conflict. But the most important element of active listening in a marriage is that your spouse knows that you really care about what they have to say.

I am 34 years old and work as a marketing rep for a major company. I speak in front of groups all day. My husband, Scott, is in computer sales and has developed the habit of completing every sentence I start. And if I do manage to finish a sentence, he corrects me. This is very embarrassing and irritating. When we are out with people, I can barely get a thought out before he jumps on it and tells the story for me. When we’re out with friends or colleagues, people notice! It makes every one slightly uncomfortable.

We have been married 3 years, and this is new behavior for him. When I mention it, he says I am making a big deal out of nothing. But I feel he is belittling me. It has become a sore point between us and I am afraid it will become even a bigger problem if he doesn’t stop. How do I get him to see that this is a real problem?
Jill from Middletown

What could it be that made Scott change his behavior to become insufferable, boorish and the talk of his coworkers? It must have been major! Perhaps Scott has become anxious when he is in social situations. Or, maybe he’s angry with Jill about something else that he refuses to share with her in more appropriate ways. His behavior could have changed in other parts of the marriage as well. It could be any of these things. But whatever the reason for this change in Scott’s behavior, the fact is that he needs to accept feedback from Jill. Sometimes the evidence of destructive behavior is so overwhelming that we can’t do anything but just accept it at face value. Scott also has to come to accept that his behavior is hurting Jill and he and his wife will both be much happier if he tones it down during casual conversations.

So what are the odds of Jill getting Scott to accept her opinion about his newly acquired charming ways? Change will only occur when Scott can open up his mind to realize Jill’s reaction to his behavior is genuine and that she’s not trying to manipulate him.

Scott and Jill also suffer from the same problem that Carol and Bill face. All Jill is asking Scott to understand is that his behavior is upsetting her. Using the structure of active listening, they can explore the reasons why Scott’s behavior changed, but more importantly, they can brainstorm ways for Scott to allow Jill to complete her thoughts. Scott can tell Jill that he understands her by repeating back to her what she feels as well as becoming more aware of what he is doing so that they can work together to eliminate the problem between them.

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