Personal Connections: Listen curiously, not defensively to connect with loved ones

You know how sometimes when your partner’s talking, you’re thinking about how you’re going to respond? While you’re listening, you’re also thinking about whether you agree, why your partner is wrong, or the “Yes, but…” you’re going to counter with.

If your partner is upset about something, you may be thinking about how he or she shouldn’t be upset, or how you have even more reason to be upset. When your partner takes a breath, you’re ready to tell your side of things.

That’s a great way to start an argument and a lousy way to have a real conversation.

We all want to know that we matter to our partners. If our partner isn’t really listening, we don’t feel like we matter. That’s frustrating — and it escalates tension. We push to be heard, maybe by repeating ourselves or by getting louder. That puts the other person on the defensive and amps up his or her emotional response.

Before you know it, there’s yelling or an icy chill in the room. No one feels happy.

There’s a biological basis for this. We’re hard-wired to seek connection. Human infants can’t survive without attention; it’s literally a matter of life and death.

So nature gets us really geared up when it seems like we’re being abandoned —which is what gets triggered when we fight with our significant other.

Stress hormones flood our bodies. We move into “fight or flight” — either arguing or shutting down and storming off.

What’s the antidote? A different kind of listening.

Your partner needs to feel heard — so give that. Take the time to listen to what he or she is really saying.

Be curious. Especially when your partner is sad, hurt, frustrated, or confused, dig deep into what’s going on.

What are the concerns? What’s important to him or her? What are the emotions behind the words?

When you start listening curiously rather than defensively, you may start to see your partner soften. Shoulders and jaw may relax; breathing may slow down. Yours may, too. That’s a good thing; you’re both more receptive and attuned. You’re better able to really hear, and your partner can focus on what he or she wants to communicate rather than on struggling to get your attention.

Of course, there are some times when asking a lot of questions — even loving, curious ones — isn’t helpful. Some people want time to process before they’re ready to talk. So don’t keep asking if your partner isn’t up for that. Your willingness to listen is helpful even if the other person isn’t ready for a conversation.

When the subject is important and the two of you disagree, both of you need a chance to talk and to listen. That may not happen in a single conversation, and that’s OK; just be sure the listening, overall, goes both ways.

In a disagreement, it’s also helpful to find some things you can agree with. When you say “I see what you’re saying about x,” or “Maybe you have a point about y,” your partner feels your willingness to consider his or her views. That makes him or her more willing to listen to yours.

Remember, this is the person you love (even though you don’t always see eye-to-eye). Do your best to listen with an open heart and mind.

Jill Whitney is a family and marriage therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at To submit questions, email

Tips for Better Talks

• Slow it down. Take time to listen; don’t rush to reply.

• Keep your tone gentle. Speak softly and calmly.

• Reflect what you hear. “So you’re saying….”

• Empathize. Show that you understand the emotion behind the words by saying things like “That sounds really frustrating” or “I can see that x matters a lot to you.”

• Be curious. Ask follow-up questions.

• Save your comments for when your partner is done.

• When you disagree, look for parts where you do agree.

• Remember that your relationship is more important than whatever you’re fighting about.









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