Empathetic active listening basically means making sure your partner knows you are really listening to them and not just nodding and saying, “yes dear”.
When you love someone, it’s natural to feel instantly inclined to help them if he or she is struggling. If he’s struggling to open a bag of chips, you reach over, grab the bag, open it, and then hand it back—maybe after taking a couple for yourself. If she’s reaching for something on a shelf, you reach up and get for her if you’re taller, or you grab a chair for one of you to stand on if you’re not. And if he can’t figure out how to get his iTunes synced up to his iPhone, you don’t wait for him to ask for your help, you just start trying to fix it. Isn’t that what being a loving partner is all about—proactively trying to help without being asked? It’s sort of one of the basics we learned as kids. “Go help your sister bring groceries in from the car,” said mom. “I shouldn’t have to ask you to do that every time.”
You’d think that just jumping in to help would always be great, right? Well, when it comes to a relationship—wrestling with bags of chips and tangling with technology aside—sometimes our significant others just need us to listen rather than jump up and start fixing. Often, just having someone listen is part of the solution.
Sometimes a person just needs to vent.
It’s not that the advice and input that we give is bad, and it’s not that the opinions and idea of those we love are not valued. In fact, one of the great things about partnership is collaborating to solve many of life’s problems—big and small. But sometimes a person just needs to vent. We’ve all had bad days at work, school, or during occasions with our extended families—situations in which being professional or “minding our manners” is in our best self-interest. We can’t always fully process or react to things that are stressful or upsetting when we’re in the moment. As true as it is that it’s not healthy to bottle up our feelings, for the sake of our jobs, educations, or family peace, sometimes we have to bottle things up just long enough to get home (or maybe just out to the car) and lose our cool in a “safe place” around people we trust.
So, what if you happen to be one of the lucky few who falls under the category of “people we trust” and your trusting partner plops down next to you in that “safe place” and starts to completely unload? If your instinct is to get right to work trying to fix things or offer advice—as well-meaning as it may be, hit the pause button. Grab a couple of beers or open a bottle of wine, put on some coffee, or grab two spoons and a tub of ice cream—name your poison—and get ready to listen like you mean it.
Listen like you mean it with empathetic active listening.
Empathetic active listening basically means making sure your partner knows you are really listening to them and not just nodding and saying, “that’s nice, honey”. By truly listening, you are helping. You’re providing a soundboard—enabling a person to hear their own thoughts, to be heard, to be understood, and to have a chance to come to their own conclusions.
1. Ask questions if you don’t understand. “Wait, was it your boss or your boss’s boss who said that?” “Which part made you mad, what he said or what she said?” This lets the person who is doing the venting know that what they’re saying isn’t going in one ear and out the other.
2. Let him or her know you understand his or her feelings. While your partner is venting, a simple “oh goodness, how awful” or “damn, that sucks”—whatever language is customary in your household—helps to let them know you “get” their feelings and that you’re following them.
3. Use body language to show you’re listening. Turning your face and your body towards your partner shows that you are open to them and that nothing is between you and what is on their mind.
4. Turn off and put away distractions. Put down the smart phone, close the laptop, turn off the TV. It’s human face-time.
Relating and offering advice
All of this having been said, there is still absolutely a time and place for sharing related experiences of your own and for offering advice. Like so many other things in life, it’s all about timing. After your partner has calmed down and had a chance to really get it all out, he or she may very well transition the conversation themselves by asking, “what would you do,” or “what do you think”. But if in doubt, simply ask—”do you feel better having just talked about it or would you like to brainstorm some solutions”. Saving your input for the end makes sure the first step towards problem solving—fully understanding the problem—isn’t interrupted.
Wanting to help and solve problems is a natural part of being a loving partner. Often, just listening really is helping.