Who listens first?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

This is the fifth habit in Stephen Covey’s productivity classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this chapter, Covey promotes empathetic listening, listening not just to reply but to understand where the other person is coming from. It makes sense in business and it works in personal relationships, but it’s hard as heck to do when you’re furious.

I have been a big proponent of empathetic listening since first discovering the power of it in marriage counseling a few years ago, and we’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice since leaving our marriage counselor over a year ago. We take turns listening and empathizing, validating and listening some more. We have the tools and we make a point of using them. Usually.

Last week, Jared and I were in an emotional stand off. We were both pretty ticked off at each other, firmly on opposite ends of important issues and angry about how the other was handling the disagreement. It was clear that we both needed to be heard. Unfortunately, neither of us was interested in doing the listening.

Who goes first when you both want to be understood?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter who goes first, but that each of us should at least consider volunteering. I know that I should seek first to understand, which means offering to play the role of listener before I get to have my say, but I really, really don’t like to. At all. I’m not good at putting my anger aside long enough to listen.

What if I’m wrong?

What if he’s wrong and I have to sit there and pretend like he’s not?

What if I do so much listening and empathizing that I don’t get a chance to be heard?

For days I went back and forth between the horror of having to really listen and the alternative: letting resentment settle back into my marriage. The choice should have been clear. It is clear. But knowing better and doing better are not the same. Pride is strong.

I was also struggling because listening makes us vulnerable, and that requires trust. The trust between Jared and I hasn’t been very high lately. We haven’t taken the time to build each other up or strengthen the bond between us. That makes it harder to trust that he’ll reciprocate if I lower my defenses and step into his shoes. As it turns out, it also makes it harder to believe someone will listen to you.

When I did finally go to Jared – which I confess only happened after I’d started writing this post and had to face what a complete ass I was being – he was hesitant.

“Is there anything you want to say to me? I’m ready to listen,” I said.

“I’m… um… I’m not sure right now.”

I sat next to him for about fifteen minutes while he made small talk and avoided looking at me. I didn’t push, but I wanted to. He continued to pretend like nothing was wrong, and I started to get angry again. Of course you won’t open up and communicate, I seethed inwardly. I was just about to walk away.

And then, quietly, he mentioned something that had upset him.

I nodded my head, kept my mouth shut, and did my best to understand. Thirty minutes later, he went to the gym and I went back to work. We hadn’t come to any great compromise between our two opinions, but we were closer to each other than we had been for days.

I share this story not because I am a shining example of partnership – it took a disgraceful amount of time for me to stuff my pride long enough to listen to my husband’s side – but to acknowledge that listening is not as easy as it sounds. It’s rare that only one person in a relationship is feeling hurt and unheard, and it’s hard as hell to listen when you need someone to listen to you.

But someone has to go first.

Once in a while, that has to be me.

Maybe sometimes it needs to be you, too.

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  1. Lisa says:

    I am really bad and going first too. Almost as bad as I am at apologizing, which is really horrible. JB is so much better at both than I am.
    Lisa’s most recent post: Who Finally Published a Life List?

    • Miss Britt says:

      That surprises me. Jared is SO much better at listening and apologizing than I am (and you, of course, are the Jared in your marriage. heh)

  2. annabelle says:

    I love your posts on making marriage work.

    It’s hard for me to drop my defenses long enough to be a considerate listener. I am so used to being the one has been “wronged” in most of our kerfuffles, that when I AM the one who fouled, it’s not easy for me to hear from my husband what I did that hurt his feelings.

    Thanks for sharing this one.

    • Miss Britt says:

      I usually feel like the one who was wronged, too. I learned in counseling that was more because I’m more likely to point out being wronged than he is, and not as much because I am less likely to screw up. lol

  3. Carly says:

    Girl, I feel like it is ALWAYS me. I am ALWAYS the one who has to act like I’m older than a junior high student. If I take a break from being the patient, empathetic, and mature the whole conversation devolves or never takes place at all. It’s very frustrating and I get sick of not being able to just unleash my frustration, always having to be the one to stifle it, wave the white flag and offer the olive branch. So sometimes I do unleash and it makes me even more pissed that he doesn’t snap to and try to build a bridge. I’ve found that unleashing on paper helped on occasion.
    Carly’s most recent post: Dinner Prep As Usual

    • Miss Britt says:

      It may be that extending the olive branch isn’t the same as listening. Jared and I were master olive branch extenders – meaning we were really good at resolving not to argue anymore. Instead of making things better, it slowly built a mountain of unresolved resentment.

      And listening is definitely NOT waving the white flag.

      • Carly says:

        For me, when I say extend the olive branch or waving the white flag, it is my (sometimes reluctant) decision to look past snide comments, condescending tone of voice, intentional jabs at my insecurities, eye-rolls and the like…and let myself be vulnerable and verbally push through all those defense mechanisms in a calm even voice. It is the moment in my mind where I say to myself this is dumb, we both love each other, let’s get to the bottom of the real issue (which in my mind is synonymous with it’s time to listen for the message behind the tantrum.) I just wish he would sometimes be able to stop and realize when he’s acting like a child (which I also do at times) and say to himself, HEY this relationship means more to me than my adolescent pride. Of course, I am not without deep flaws and shortcomings myself. And I’m sure those defense mechanisms are reactions to perceived attacks, which would be partially my fault. Does that make any sense? I guess I meant waving the white flag that for us needs occasionally be waved before we can even begin to discuss/resolve the issue at hand.

  4. That is a wonderful reminder. I know over this last year my wife and I have run into a few of those major impasses. In the heat of the moment it’s hard to be empathetic, especially if it is a big emotional issue.
    Corey Feldman’s most recent post: Egret and the Wishing Flower

    • Miss Britt says:

      A. MEN. The heat of the moment is rarely good for communicating. I almost always have to take a breather – sometimes a really long one – before I can listen.

  5. Megan says:

    It’s so hard to be vulnerable. It’s one of the hardest things for me to do, period. But if that’s what it takes…
    Megan’s most recent post: Swimming Pools

  6. Wonderful. Communication, listening and compromise are the key things in a marriage. I’ve been married for 36 years and those things are some of the most important for us. Marriage takes a lot of work and practice.
    Jill of All Trades’s most recent post: A Crying Dog

    • Miss Britt says:

      OH! I love the notion of marriage being something that takes practice.

      I know after counseling Jared and I would feel so disappointed when we argued, like somehow we had failed at marriage again or something, or regressed.

  7. Ally Bean says:

    “But knowing better and doing better are not the same.”

    That really is the essence of why empathetic listening is so difficult. Amazing why we learn as we go along in life, isn’t it? Great post.
    Ally Bean’s most recent post: Musings On Being A Good Listener

    • Miss Britt says:

      Yep. Because when it comes down to it, hard stuff is still hard, no matter how good for us it is.

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