H. Laurence Schwab, MFT, June 22, 2015
One of the compelling problems facing a couple as they navigate a relationship boat together is how to keep communication genuine and effective. The best communication for the sake of the boat includes sincere “I statements” and accurate “active listening” by both captains.
Aside from the challenge of making statements that actually describe what you are thinking or how you are feeling while using the word “I” (example: “I feel confused… hurt… dismissed… lonely… isolated… useless… invisible,… unimportant,… unwanted,… unappreciated… undesirable”…. as opposed to… “It feels like you have abandoned me and you have never appreciated me or loved me.”), it is really difficult to listen well.
Even when your partner is making a heartfelt statement about themselves it often feels like just another attack or criticism of you, but to communicate fairly, with consideration and compassion, you need to listen to them and validate what they are saying and what they are feeling before you tell them your thoughts and feelings about what they are saying. You need to manage your own defensiveness.
In The Mentalist or Criminal Minds and other similar television shows that portray detectives who focus on the psychology of the suspects in a crime, as they are being told the story that the suspect is weaving, they are listening for the I statements hidden in the story. They are listening for the genuine person who is feeling small and communicating about how they feel or what matters to them. They have trained themselves to use a filter that only registers the deepest statements, even if it is spoken in code. This allows the detective to disarm the person they are interviewing with some insight into their resources and motivations.
And I don’t mean that we listen in order to win the battle of what the other person is “really” thinking. I am talking about good detective work so that you don’t make false assumptions or accusations. You are curious and discerning about the other person’s intentions and ideas, not trying to solve the case or find guilt. After all, most of these shows have important moments where the ‘mentalist’ proclaims that the person meant no harm or was innocent of any crime.
Why not use this skill with your partner? What is the harm in asking whether they are really talking about something important they are trying to express about themselves? Why not help them talk about what they really want you to understand about the mental and emotional state they are in? This is not the same as telling them what they mean or what they are thinking or feeling, it is skillful listening, working with them to communicate as clearly as possible.