by Juan Olmedo, LCSW
Juan is a therapist at the Gay Therapy Center. He sees clients at the East Village Gay Therapy Center in New York.
In any relationship, communication is essential. When it’s working well both partners feel loved, connected, and secure. But when you encounter defensiveness or misunderstanding, it’s easy to feel unsupported or to worry that the relationship isn’t working. To reconnect with your partner, there are three essential listening skills that can help you both feel heard and understood.
Imago Therapy is a type of couples counseling that offers these tools. Chief among them is the “couples dialogue” that allows each partner to use active listening skills to deepen their connection. Listening is key to being there for your partner, but it is definitely more challenging when you feel a strong desire to react or to defend yourself. To keep the focus on your partner, think about these three skills: mirroring, validating and empathizing.
1. Mirroring is reflecting what your partner is saying using their own words. This can feel weird at first because you might feel like a parrot repeating their phrases. When you repeat your partner’s words back to them, start off your response with “So I hear you saying…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…” Notice that you might initially have two conversations going on: the verbal one where you’re practicing the mirroring, and the internal one where you’re responding with an explanation or defense. If you practice mirroring long enough, the desire to debate lessens over time, especially as you start to notice your partner is feeling listened to and understood.
2. Validating means you’re telling your partner that what they are saying is understandable from their point of view. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, it just means that you can see their point. This can sound like, “That makes sense because…” or “I can see how you might think or feel…” If you’re having trouble understanding your partner’s perspective, it’s also helpful to ask for more information, like “Can you tell me more about…” in a way that’s inviting, instead of “I don’t understand what you mean.”
3. Empathizing means really trying to get to the emotions they’re experiencing. It’s going deeper than thoughts and into vulnerable feelings. Use a phrase like, “It sounds like you were feeling really upset when….” Or “I can imagine you felt hurt…” It can make a huge difference to your partner that you’re making the effort to really get them. You are conveying that how they feel matters to you, and that is essential for good couples communication.
It can take practice to feel like you’re making these listening skills your own. Keep experimenting with this. During difficult discussions, there is no better way to create a safe connection. The added bonus? When your partner practices the same listening skills they return the favor to you!