How to be become a better listener for your partner

Can we acknowledge how vulnerable we feel when we open up to our partners? Please and thank you. Some of us would rather cut off a toe than expose our deepest fears. Our significant other is the one person we are supposed to trust, feel safe with, and be vulnerable with, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Regardless of how long you’ve been together, sharing your hurt can make you feel raw and fearful. Today I will share some tangible ways to help you become a better listener for your partner so he or she feels like you understand and respect them. If used consistently, in effect, these strategies will make it easier for both of you to be vulnerable. 

Don’t “at least” someone – We all know a person who drops “at least bombs” in their wake. You know what I’m talking about: You trip in the parking lot on the way into work, your coffee goes flying and splashes on your car windshield, and the contents of your purse are now on display all over the ground. Yep, that’s right, Harry from Accounting now knows that you carry apples, Mac Lipglass, and birth control with you at all times. Then your phone goes off and your secret shame is revealed: your NSync ringtone. You are 43 and listen to boy bands (just me?). Let’s focus, though, because the rock bottom of this story is that your coffee is no longer. It went “Bye, Bye, Bye, Bye, Bye.” See what I did there? I couldn’t resist. 

When you relate the story to your peers in the work kitchen, the “at leaster” steals your thunder. She says, “At least you didn’t split your pantyhose, and Harry saw your days of the week underwear!” What? Pause. Let’s reflect on the phrase “at least.” Any time someone says “at least” to you, they are diminishing your concerns and situation. Regardless of how much courage it took for you to share said situation, that person has now effectively dismissed your hurt and made theirs more important. The at-leaster is manipulating the conversation and turning the direction to them. We can likely agree that the tripping example was embarrassing, but not soul crushing, right? I used it as an intro to the “at least” concept. 

Imagine, though, you were 11 weeks pregnant and just miscarried. You call a friend, and she says “At least you weren’t further along.” WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL. We can likely agree that this example is soul crushing, right? “At least” has the potential to carry much weight. What are you supposed to do with a statement like that? You have now been put in a position to defend your pain while simultaneously making it worse. That’s the underlying theme with “at least:” Its point is to make you feel like your pain isn’t justified. Again, it’s used to diminish your anguish.

So, let’s imagine another scenario. This time, you are talking with your significant other after he comes home from work. You see he’s visibly upset and ask him what’s wrong. He tells you that his boss took away a project he had been working on for months and gave it to someone who has less experience. Here are a few possible responses: Babe, I’m so sorry about this! Did your boss give you a reason? You must be crushed. Or Well, that project has been taking up a ton of your time at night, at least now you won’t have to work extra hours. Again, WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL.

You can easily see which is a more appropriate, supportive response. One offers empathy, validation, and genuine interest, while the other completely dismisses her husband’s feelings and makes it about the inconvenience to the household. If you were on the receiving end, how would you feel about those responses? Exactly.

Don’t tell them how to feel – Confession time: I’ve been emotionally eating more lately. I haven’t had sugar in 415 days as of this writing, but I’ve been stress eating. I’m a school counselor in a high-needs area, and you never know what the day’s demands will entails. On any given day, I might counsel a student on a teacher conflict, questions about their military test results, fears of deportation, college planning, and suicidal ideation. Literally all of those in one day. Additionally, I have two small children, write an article every week, launched my (free) 5-Day Snooze Button Challenge JOIN HERE, and am creating my first digital course (coming in February to help you create and conquer your morning routine!). 

Did I mention that one of my children is a toddler? I’ve been overeating in response to the stress. My pants are tight, my face is fuller, and my self-esteem is starting to take a hit. Anyone relate? When I vented to a friend about how I felt, she said, “Don’t feel that way, you look fine.” I know she meant well, but if you are pouring out your heart, regardless of that person’s perception, your feelings are real. Have you ever heard the saying “perception is reality?” There are ways to validate someone’s feelings and help them move forward at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me how to feel or not to feel, I get defensive. Similar to “at least,” when someone tells you how to feel, it puts you in a position to defend your pain, and that’s not fair. The truth is that we should be able to vent and receive validation and support. But here’s the problem: Not everyone knows how to do that, which is why I’m sharing this article with you. 

Scenario time again: Your husband gets off the phone after having an argument with a long-time friend. Your husband tells you that his friend always acts like what he has going on at work is way more stressful and important. Here are a few possible responses: Babe, you sound so frustrated. That’s not fair that he does that. OR Don’t be mad at him. He’s your friend. He doesn’t mean it that way. 

How would you feel about those responses if you were on the receiving end? One response validates your husband’s feelings and offers alignment with him, while the other dismisses his feelings and sends him the message that he’s wrong for feeling that way. You are indirectly telling your husband that you know better and that he doesn’t understand the situation.

When it comes to listening to your partner, it’s not about having the perfect answer or being right. It’s about giving them a response that reiterates to them that you are on their side, even if you disagree with them. You can disagree and be aligned at the same time, but the second response doesn’t produce that effect. If you don’t know what to say to your husband (or whomever), the go-to response should include some form of validation, so that even if your follow-up questions or comments are a little off the mark, you began your part of the conversation with warm intent. Make sense? This all leads to…

The purpose of listening – Communication is a combination of talking, listening, and body language. The purpose of all forms of communication is to let your partner know you see him/her. You get him. You understand him. You respect him, value him, admire him, and desire him. Isn’t that what we want in return? No one has a “perfect” response to every situation, but again, when in doubt, make sure it includes validation so that your partner knows you believe in him.

Let’s dissect each form of communication. When you speak to your partner, for him or her to feel everything I described, you must use a proper tone. Sarcasm has its time and place, but it should not be directed at your partner in a way that is condescending. Your tone should be friendly and welcoming, not adversarial. This sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But….when you are stressed and rushed, we tend to get distracted, and it shows in our tone. 

Again, I know this sounds obvious, but the words you choose are significant, too. An easy way to check the above items off the list is to use terms of endearment. If you have a special name for each other, remember to use it. It’s sad when you and your partner have pet names, but then you realize you haven’t used them in a while. This means something. I’m not saying it necessarily indicates that your relationship is falling apart, but if you used to do something positive in a relationship, and don’t do it anymore or as often, it’s a reflection of something. It’s up to you to assign meaning to the change, but again, using terms of endearment is an easy way to keep the talking part of communication positive.

You can show you are listening in a variety of ways: 

  1. Ask clarifying questions
  2. Paraphrase their story
  3. Use their words back to them (as in, if they say they are frustrated, you can say that word back to them so they feel like you get them. An easy tactic, but profound results)
  4. Ask open-ended questions

Your body language needs to support your words. You can demonstrate positive body language in a variety of ways, too:

  1. Active eye contact – There is a difference between positive eye contact and a glazed-over look
  2. Nod your head, use hand gestures
  3. Lean forward
  4. Say “mm-hmm” as your partner is talking to encourage them to continue. 

It would be easy to read this article and become consumed with a checklist of ways to properly respond to your partner, but that’s not its intent. We are not perfect. You won’t always say things in the exact right tone, and neither will your partner. You won’t always feel like asking follow-up questions, and you won’t always care how his day went. The goal is to communicate the majority of the time in a way that allows your partner to feel seen and valued. If you do this most of the time, you will create a foundation of goodwill in the relationship, and that will carry you through the other times. 

You can do the majority of the time, right? Your partner deserves it, and so do you. Please don’t hesitate to email me with questions about any of the tactics I shared today or to ask about a specific situation. What is your partner’s best trick to make you feel valued? How does he or she show you that you are heard and seen? How do you do the same for your partner? Comment below or email me to share!

P.S. Is there a topic you want me to cover? Let me know!

Don’t forget to subscribe to the “Follow Your Spark” blog to automatically learn about new postings! As always, thank you for reading!