Long Reads

Relationship advice: want to be a better listener? Follow these communication tips

We’re often told that communication is the key to maintaining good relationships, but how can we better listeners? Here, author Kate Murphy meets a couples’ therapist to find out.

“You’re not listening!”

“Let me finish!”

“That’s not what I said!”

After “I love you,” these are among the most common refrains in close relationships. While you might think you’d be more likely to listen to a loved one than a stranger, in fact, the opposite is often true. 

It’s a phenomenon psychologist Judith Coche knows all too well. She is widely recognised as an authority on couples’ group therapy, and her success at saving seemingly hopeless marriages was documented in the book The Husbands and Wives Club by Laurie Abraham. 

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When I met Coche in her downtown Philadelphia office late one evening, the sofa and chairs were still warm and the throw pillows twisted and disheveled from the couples’ group that had just left. I was there to find out why people so often feel unheard and misunderstood by their partners. 

Coche’s answer was pretty simple: people in long term relationships tend to lose their curiosity for each other. Not necessarily in an unkind way; they just become convinced they know each other better than they do. They don’t listen because they think they already know what the other person will say. 

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Relationship advice: as wonderful as intimacy and familiarity are, they make us complacent, leading us to overestimate our ability to read those closest to us.

Coche gave the example of spouses who answer questions or make decisions for each other. They might also give gifts that miss the mark, resulting in disappointment and hurt feelings. Parents can make the same sorts of mistakes, assuming they know what their children like or don’t like and what they would or would not do. 

We actually all tend to make assumptions when it comes to those we love. It’s called the closeness-communication bias. As wonderful as intimacy and familiarity are, they make us complacent, leading us to overestimate our ability to read those closest to us.

It’s as if once you feel a connection with someone, you assume it will always be so. The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us and adds nuance to our understanding of the world so that no one is the same as yesterday, nor will today’s self be identical to tomorrow’s. 

Opinions, attitudes, and beliefs change. So it doesn’t matter how long you have known or how well you think you know people; if you stop listening, you will eventually lose your grasp of who they are and how to relate to them.

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Relying on the past to understand someone in the present is doomed to failure. The French writer André Maurois wrote, “A happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short.” 

How long would you want to stay with someone who insisted on treating you as if you were the same person you were the day you two met? This is true not just in romantic relationships but in all relationships. Even toddlers object to being treated like the infants they were just months earlier. Offer a two-year-old a helping hand with something they’ve already learned how to do and you’ll likely get an exasperated, “I do it!” Listening is how we stay connected to one another as the pages turn in our lives.

You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon when someone close to you (maybe your spouse, child, parent, friend, etc.) revealed something that you didn’t know when the two of you were talking to someone else. You might have even said, “I didn’t know that!” This likely occurred because the other person was listening differently than you previously had. Maybe that person showed more interest, asked the right questions, was less judging, or was less apt to interrupt.

Think of how you, yourself, might tell different people different things. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the type of relationship you have with them or degree of closeness. You might have once told a stranger something you hadn’t told anyone else. What you tell, and how much you tell, depends on how you perceive the listener at that moment. And if someone is listening superficially, listening to find fault, or only listening to jump in with an opinion, then you’re unlikely to make any kind of meaningful disclosure and vice versa.

But no matter how well we try to listen, or how close we feel to another person, it’s important to remember we can never really know another person’s mind. And prying is the quickest way to lose someone’s confidence. 

In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away.”

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Relationship advice: "We should always try to communicate and to give each other the gift of listening."

It recalls a story told to me by Daniel Flores, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, which encompasses 4,226 square miles in the southernmost tip of the state. Like Coche, he sees a lot of struggling couples. They always make Flores think of his grandparents, who were married for 65 years. 

He remembers sitting at the dinner table as a child and hearing his grandmother say about his grandfather, “I will never understand that man.” That moment has stayed with him. “Here was my grandmother who loved this man, they’d been together through good times and bad, but still, there was this element of the inconceivable between them,” he said.

Bishop Flores believes that expecting complete understanding is the root of many troubled relationships. “We all long to express ourselves to another, but if we think there will be the perfect person who will be able to receive it all, we will be disappointed,” he said. “Not that we shouldn’t always try to communicate and to give each other the gift of listening, for that is love, even if we aren’t always able to understand.”

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You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy is published on 23 January, by Harvill Secker, Vintage. You can preorder a copy here

Images: Getty, Unsplash