Partners often find themselves engaging in arguments to solve a problem, yet end up feeling more tense, depleted, and polarized than when the conversation originally started. This can happen when partners don’t feel like they’re truly being heard, understood, and validated. This blog post outlines common processes that invite us to stop hearing our partners during arguments, and discusses ways to begin attuning and understanding your partner more effectively.
Hints That You’ve Stopped Trying to Hear, Understand, and Validate
You Care More About Being Understood than Trying to Understand
For most people, the unspoken goal of an argument is to convince the other person of your point or to prove yourself right, and, naturally, to prove them wrong. Yet, ironically, there’s hope that the argument will end with both of you on the same page. The more you focus on convincing and being understood, the less you work on listening and trying to understand your partner.
You’re Too Focused on the Content of the Argument
The “content” of an argument is what you’re arguing about. When you become hyper-focused on the content of the argument, you fail to notice the feelings attached to what your partner is sharing with you. For example, couples may fight about the reason why one of them was late coming home from work. While the impunctual partner starts to defend and focus on all the reasons why they were late, they fail to notice that their partner has been feeling increasingly neglected and unloved every night that they don’t get to have dinner together. The content of an argument is important, and allows us to discuss the problem at hand. But, reflecting on the feelings your partner is experiencing allows you to move out of surface-level arguments to more meaningful opportunities to understand them. While behaviours and thoughts can be considered right or wrong, you can’t “prove” your partner out of their feelings.
You Argue Using the “Tennis Match” Pattern
The “Tennis Match” Pattern is how I describe arguments where one partner shares something, and the other partner reacts immediately to state their own point, without acknowledging and/or validating what they heard their partner say. The tennis ball is the content of the argument, and the process of the argument involves whacking the ball back at your partner in order to win. These types of interactions are usually cycles of defending oneself and blaming your partner. As long as you’re critcizing and attacking, your partner will likely immediately respond with defensiveness and blame in return. In contrast, I encourage partners to think of arguments as a game of catch – you have to catch and hold the ball that your partner sends your way before you send it back. That is, you acknowledge what you heard them say, and respond thoughtfully rather than reacting immediately.
You’ve Stopped Being Curious About Your Partner’s Inner World
When we start to think we know all there is to know about our partner’s point of view, we stop being curious and stop listening for ways to truly grasp our partner’s perspective. Losing curiosity means that you’re longer open to the possibility of learning something new about someone else’s felt experience.
You’re Interrupting Your Partner in Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways
When we begin to interrupt our partners in implicit or explicit ways, it can indicate that we are valuing our own ideas and perspectives over our partner’s. Explicit interruptions are those that clearly involve cutting your partner off, and are typically verbal. Implicit interruptions are those that are a little more subtle and are typically non-verbal. These can include actions like fast head-nodding while your partner is talking, which implies: “Yup, got it. Wrap it up and listen to what I have to say now.”
Practicing the Art of Hearing and Attunement
In order for arguments to become more effective, I encourage partners to move away from turning againsttheir partners and begin to turn towardsthem and begin to hear, understand, and validate.
Being heard is to feel that we’ve been listened to. Being understood is to feel that someone has tried to step into our emotional experiences and has grasped our perspectives. Being validated is to feel that someone has acknowledged our experiences and feelings as real, normal, and legitimate.
4 Tips to Start Hearing, Understanding, and Validating Your Partner
- Slow the conversation down. Give yourself permission to pause and not immediately react to your partner. This gives you time to be thoughtful in your responses to your partner, and less reactive.
- Take a break from trying to convince your partner, and get curious about their perspectives and feelings. Ask yourself: Is there part of their experience that I’m not fully understanding? Instead of talking and telling, start asking questions that allow you to understand their experience. Questions can include: How does it make you feel when _____ ? Can you help me understand why this issue is so important for you? What are your ideas about what we can change about this issue moving forward? What do you need from me right now and in the future?
- Reflect back what you’ve heard them say. This allows your partner to feel that you’re really listening and taking in what they’re sharing with you.
- Validate and empathize. Acknowledge that what they’re experiencing is legitimate and makes sense to you. Statements of validation and empathy can include: It makes sense why you feel _____ when I _____. It must be frustrating when I _____ ; I’m sorry.
When we’re feeling like we’re not being heard, understood, or validated, arguments often escalate to an unhelpful place that involves blame, defence, contempt, and polarization. When one partner chooses to shift these dynamics and change their role in the conversation, the other partner naturally follows suit
You and your partner may find it difficult to turn towards each other in these ways during arguments. It might be helpful to seek out a couple’s therapist to support you as you work on increasing your communication skills.
To learn more about how we can support you with relationship concerns, contact Nikki Sedaghat at firstname.lastname@example.org.