The Subtle Art of Listening During a Disagreement

If you can manage to tone down the defensiveness and really listen to the issues at hand, you'll be well on your way.

We all know the agony of feeling unheard. It numbs your senses and scratches at your sanity. It’s a breaker of bonds, a rival to reason. Mutual, attentive listening, on the other hand, is vital to healthy intimacy and strong friendships, especially when the going gets rough and opinions collide.

For most of us, our self-defense system kicks in when we’re met with a challenge — we want to fight, and we want to win. To change that habit, we need to change our perspective. So the next time you're in the heat of a disagreement, consider this alternative perspective: your opponent is not the person sitting across from you; your opponent is the inability to connect and move on from the current struggle in a healthy, restorative way.

And when you and your significant other can embrace after an argument without resentment, when they know their perspective is understood and they're able to consider yours — that's when you win.

To do that, you need ot learn to listen. It's both an art and a discipline, one that can make or break relationships. It's the method to clear, open communication and the pathway to resolution. And it's also one of the most important skills a man can learn.

The Obstacles

First thing first: there are a few bad habits we all pick up that need to be eliminated or reduced.

You’re different than me and every other person alive. You process information differently, respond to opposition differently, and have your own physical and mental habits. So you'll have to find your own way to avoid falling over these obstacles. It'll take some practice and probably some failures, but once you figure it out, you'll be a better person for it.

Being Judgemental

Bringing past events or fights to the table is a losing battle. It’s healthy to recognize if some bitterness has built up over something specific so that you can reconsider it, address it, and move on — but save it for another time. Whether it’s related or not, bringing these things up or dwelling on them in silent judgment is just going to cloud your judgment of the current disagreement.

You need to dispel that bitterness as much as possible so that you can be present and attentive. Allowing them to sit in the corner of your mind can do serious damage to your ability to listen and empathize. The same is true for comments made in the current discussion – if something comes across the wrong way, take note of it, slip it in your pocket for a more appropriate time, and clear your mind of it.

Rehearsing Your Argument

Sure, you want to tell your side of the story. But you’re doing yourself a serious disservice if you're crafting your argument while the other person talking. If you’re too busy considering your own argument to listen for the nuance in your partner's frustrations, your response isn’t going to address the things that matter the most to them. And you’ll be back to square one.

Rehearsing is the best way to get locked into a grueling battle. Before long, your conversation will have devolved into repetitive arguments, void of any listening in between.

Mind Reading

If she says, “You should consider that job in Seattle” and you hear “I’m tired of you, go away,” you’ve crossed into the realm of mind readers. That's not a place you want to be. Drawing conclusions, guessing as to what’s coming next, and projecting motivations that probably don't exist are great ways to subconsciously villainize your other half.

A good way to stop this is to realize you have a limited perspective and give her the benefit of the doubt.If your over-eager mind concludes something that you believe is important to bring up or makes you uncomfortable, make a mental note of it and set it aside for a moment. There will be a time when you can ask clarifying questions later to help you discover if your mind reading was based in reality or something else.

Listening Properly

With your mind free of judgments, arguments, and the ability to mind read, you’re off to a good start. Keep the good vibes going by being an active listener.

  • Keep your posture open. Don't cross your arms or shrink into your seat.

  • Close your laptop and set your phone out of sight.

  • Avoid interrupting — either audibly, or with your body language by eye rolling or glaring.

  • Eye contact. Don’t glaze over like a bored kid in math class.

Clarify and Paraphrase

Did the other person say anything you don’t understand? Did they connect some dots you aren’t able to? Think you picked up on an underlying concern that wasn’t spoken outright? Now’s your chance to fill in the gaps. Like so:

Do you really think I’ll be happier by the coast? What does my mother have to do with this again? Why did you feel like I didn’t care about your feelings when I said that?

When your questions are answered, with delicate, unassuming language, play back the tape as you understand it.

What I’m hearing you say is that you think we’ll live a higher quality of life in Seattle, that I sometimes get complacent with my current job, and that my mother is beginning to bother you with talk about babies. Am I missing anything?

It might take a few rounds of clarifying and paraphrasing; unless you’re a listening ninja, you probably won’t hit the bullseye the first time. They may need to sit on your paraphrase for a minute to consider whether it’s right or not. You may need to sit on their response for a moment to work new bits of feedback into your own understanding. This is when the reward of your hard work listening begins to take shape. The tense mood of battle begins to wear away as you become companions, working together.

Listening like that has the power to heal relationships, build trust, and keep discussions healthy – but you've got to actively practice it. Give it some real time and effort, and you (and your significant other) will be glad you did.

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