Communication — 06 June 2008
Selfless listening is a key to couple’s intimacy

Conflict between mates occurs when one or both feel unheard by the other. It is a common occurrence in human miscommunication. Yet, there is a simple way to prevent defensiveness, hurt and misunderstanding in dialoguing with your mate. I call it selfless listening. Once you become aware of its simplicity and efficacy adopting it, will afford you a better connection and greater intimacy with your beloved.

There are several main reasons for communication failures between two parties, among them are: mistrust, divergent rigid interests, defensiveness and self-introjections.

Mistrust is one element that causes two parties to be ineffective in hearing each other. We see it clearly in the international political arena, where nations harbor certain misconceptions about each other’s nature and intentions. Some of these long-held beliefs act as barriers to productive negotiations and sensible compromises.

Rigidity about holding on to one’s ideal outcome as the only choice is another barrier to sensible compromise. As long as one is only going to accept an agreement based on his/her perspective and wishes, true dialogue cannot evolve.

Feeling defensive during communication comes not from mistrust or single-mindedness, but quite the opposite. The drive to be valued by the mate is so compelling that any hint of disapproval, criticism, or reduced appreciation calls for being immediately dispelled. Though it is triggered by the desire to stay valued, defensiveness causes reduction in mutual regard, fights, and great distance between the parties.

So how do you maintain your partner’s high regard and abstain from defending yourself when hearing what may sound as a discount of you? Selfless listening does it. The basic premise in selfless listening is that anything one says is about him/herself – not about you, even if you are the subject of the discussion. Being a wise listener requires understanding that the speaker is expressing solely his/her own needs and ideas and that the selfless listening helps you keep yourself out of focus while attending to your loved one.

For example, your partner tells you that she is upset with your conduct. The natural reaction is to defend yourself, explain or justify your motivation, or even hold her responsible for provoking it. If you use selfless listening you will ask more about her distress and what she may need to feel better about the situation. Knowing what troubles her may encourage you to consider doing it differently in the future. Thanking her for voicing her needs validates her and keeps you esteemed as well.

In ordinary listening compassion is reserved for your own needs, which leads to defensiveness, justifications and fights. In selfless listening the focus is your partner’s emotions and wants, which leads to compassion, support and loving understanding.

Carol Hwoschinsky, the Training Director with The Compassionate Listening Project, which fosters dialogue and reconciliation between parties in conflict in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, used her observations about political communication between foes, as follows: “Listening with compassion means putting judgments aside. This quality of listening creates a safety for people to be free to express themselves. It has everything to do with caring for the state of another human being.”

Selfless listening also entails paying attention to the nonverbal communication of your mate. In her study, Eve-Anne Doohan of the University of San Francisco, found that the nonverbal expression of negative emotions was used by dissatisfied husbands to let their wives know that they were displeased with what the wives were saying. A selfless listener pays attention to facial expressions and body gestures as well as to the words in attempting to understand and support the mate.

• Accept that every individual’s communication is about him/herself, not about you.
• Train yourself to become a selfless listener by concentrating solely on your mate’s words and nonverbal communication to better understand the meaning of the transmitted needs.
• Treat your loved one’s emotional state as you would his/her physical pain. Respond with compassion to your mate’s heartache as you would to his/her headache. Ask how you can help alleviate his/her discomfort.
• Freely apologize, if need be, but do not get defensive. Defensiveness inappropriately shifts the focus onto you while abandoning your mate.
• Postpone dealing with your needs until your mate is heard and affirmed and appears resolved with the initial issue.
• When both of you choose to become selfless listeners you can develop a happy, close emotional connection and a true loving bond for a lifetime.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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