Updated: May 16
Part two of two
Last time we started talking about how it happens that we talk to our partners but don’t feel heard and what we can do about it. Here’s the rest of the story.
The first three problems we mentioned were
Not getting your partner’s attention
Hearing only what we want to hear
Hearing the power dynamic
Next, there’s the fact that so often we are only hearing our image of who the other person is. Let’s say I used to be a very Type A person. And now I’m a Mellow Yellow kinda person. But you’ve known me as a Type A person and, more important, you can’t let go of that. You can’t see that I’ve changed. Things don’t matter much to me now, but you still see me as the person to whom everything mattered big time.
So maybe you get a new hairstyle and I’ll ask you what you think of it and you’ll hear my question as being judgmental. After all, I’m the person who has strong, usually judgmental opinions about everything. Except I don’t anymore. But you can’t hear me because you can’t see me. You can’t know you can’t hear me because you can’t know you can’t see me.
As they say, it’s not the things we don’t know that hurt us. It’s the things we think we know that are wrong. Or, in 5th-grade parlance, when you assume you make an ass out of U and ME.
What makes this problem worse is that I don’t know you’re not hearing me. I just think you’re being an asshole.
You see how bad this problem can be.
One way out of this is that, whenever your communications get all jammed up, you go back and talk about what you were saying. What was I making a bid for in my asking you what you thought of your new hairstyle? What were you making a bid for—and why—in your angry response? If we both supply our context, the misunderstanding disappears.
Next, you can’t hear me because I’m not surrounding the aspirin with applesauce. I’m not making my message easy to hear. Let’s say you’re upset with our kid’s report card and you come at me with a full head of steam. You want me to be as concerned as you are.
But what I hear is that you want me to think our kid sucks as much as you think he sucks (and I don’t want to think my kid sucks), plus you want me to get all riled up about the situation (and I’m not in the mood for getting riled up). So whatever it is you think you’re saying, I’m hearing “Little Jimmy is a lousy kid and I want you to run around like a nut dealing with it.”
No. I’m not going to be receptive to any part of that. Ain’t gonna buy it. More importantly, I’m not even going to hear any of it. Then from your point of view, you’ll think I’m fighting you, and you won’t understand why. You’ll be thinking I don’t care.
Like it or not, if the communication contains a message plus some upsetment, the other person will only hear and only respond to the upsetment. If you don’t take that into account, you’re the one who’s going to suffer. Be upset if you want, but realize that that’s what your partner’s going to hear, not your message.
Finally, you can’t hear me because you’re not me. This is the toughest one of all. No one is ever anyone else but themselves! But when we talk, we are each of us a world of assumptions and experiences.
Take trust. People are wildly different in their propensity to trust other people and to trust life itself. Now if a lower trust person is married to a higher trust person, their communications are probably not going to have those labels. They’ll just be talking. Maybe about the people they’ve both just met at a party.
“What did you think of the people Fred and Ellen introduced us to?” Low-Trust Louie asks.
“They seemed really nice,” says Hi-Trust Hannah.
And Low-Trust Louie thinks Hi-Trust Hannah is an idiot, or just doesn’t want to talk to him, or is hiding her real thoughts, or something else that’s also really frustrating to him.
But no. Hi-Trust Hannah trusts people, so she likes people, so she rarely finds anything wrong with people, so she usually finds them nice, and so “they seemed really nice” is her genuine answer to Low-Trust Louie’s question.
But Low-Trust Louie can be forgiven for not being able to understand what Hi-Trust Hannah has to say, because he has absolutely no experience with experiencing the world the way Hannah does.
And trust is just one of the dimensions in which this plays out. There’s also seriousness, attentiveness, patience, analytic ability, interest...a host of other aspects of being a human being.
The bottom line to this is that if what your partner says to you seems off, seems to have cutting edges or missing pieces, don’t respond at all. Ask questions instead. Get information. What they’re saying is probably way less important than why they’re saying it. Where it’s coming from.
Usually, inside almost anything any of us say is a life history and a worldview. If I say, “They seemed really nice,” you may have to listen to me to the point where you catch a glimpse of that life history and world view to hear what’s really going on.
The tragedy is being trapped in a relationship where your partner just seems like a defective version of yourself. But that’s almost always because you never look for anyone but yourself when you look at your partner.
Why Couples Fight is about overcoming this when it comes to trying to get your needs met.
One more thing. Whenever you’re trying to communicate something, it’s ESSENTIAL that you get across what’s important to you in what you’re saying and how important it is to you. A 1,001 communication disasters grow out of your not making this clear, to say nothing of your partner not asking for clarity. We either belch out a word cloud or slip out a cryptic sentence, and the gold of what’s important and how important it is never gets addressed.
Address it! If you don’t underline what important in what you have to say, or discover it in what your partner has said, you have only yourselves to blame when things go haywire, and they will.