Vulnerable Listening

Vulnerable Listening

In my last article, I talked about the importance of being vulnerable in your communication. Being vulnerable is a willingness to own and communicate your thoughts, feelings, needs and wants in a clear and yet non-dogmatic or blaming way. It’s communicating in a way that allows you to assert yourself while also showing respect for your partner.

Now I want to talk about the other side of communication—listening, and in particular being vulnerable as you listen.

I think of good listening as creating safe and trusting conditions in which you and your loved one can share your thoughts, feelings, needs, and fears with each other. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it is not. Vulnerable listening is being able to listen when it is not easy. Let’s say your partner is upset and you want to run or fight back. Instead, you choose to be present. You handle your own emotions and make it safe for him or her to continue opening up to you. If you can listen when you’re feeling vulnerable, you are in the process of building a deep and intimate connection.

An Example

Let’s go back to my example from my last blog post.

Suppose your spouse walks up to you, as you arrive home from work and says, “You don’t think about anybody around here but yourself.  You work late, come home late, and you don’t care about me or the family as long as you’re advancing in your career.”

Oh, my. How would you respond?

It is so easy to react.

If you’re a dominator you’ll go on the defensive and attack right back. “Who are you to call me selfish? I can’t get you up off the couch to do a darn thing with the family every weekend.”

If you’re an accommodator, you may take a quick shot, “Who are you to talk to me like that” but then withdraw and pout, refusing to talk to your spouse for the next three days.

If you’re an avoider, you’ll let it blow over, acting like nothing really happened.

The problem is that each of these three responses are more about you than your partner. You use them to protect yourself from your own deeper and more vulnerable feelings but you never really solve the problem. They just lead you and your spouse into a negative dance of intimacy, such as escalation, invalidation, or withdrawal.

Can You Hear the Deeper Message?

Right now, more than anything else, your spouse needs you to listen.

I know it’s hard when you feel attacked. Perhaps you’ll need to take a little break and do some self-soothing before you can listen.

But what can also help you shift into a listening mode is understanding that the anger your spouse is expressing is not the real issue. It, too, is protective. As I talked about in the last article, he or she does not feel safe enough to be more vulnerable and talk about his/her deeper hurts and fears. So his/her words come out blaming instead.

But if you can be vulnerable enough to listen, in the moment or a little later in the evening, perhaps you can hear the deeper message—the fear, hurt, or loneliness your partner is communicating. These are the feelings fueling the anger. If you can see this, perhaps you could say something like, “I can see you’re really upset. I want to hear about it. Tell me more.”

Now you’re listening. You’re creating safe and trusting conditions. You’ve interrupted a negative pattern. You’re managing your own anxiety so you can be a good partner in your relationship.

This Doesn’t Make it Easy

Of course, don’t assume your partner is immediately going to calm down and thank you for your soft response. They’re still revved up. Besides they don’t trust your response. They’re wondering about your ulterior motive. Or, they want you to get angry or hurt so they don’t have to feel like a little child while you’re being a grownup.

So they may come on with more angry statements. Can you be there and hear them out? You don’t have to agree. It doesn’t have to feel good. Neither do you have to personalize it. But if you can make it safe by being present and not judging the words and tone you are hearing, then you are making it safe for them to become more vulnerable, to talk about their deeper feelings.

It may not happen immediately. Perhaps not even in this conversation. But if you can begin to listen with empathy rather than react to your spouse, things will begin to change for you as well as your spouse. You’re in the process of growing up yourself and becoming a more mature adult.

An Analogy

I like an analogy that my wife has used with me. When someone around her is angry, she thinks of herself as a chain link fence rather than slat-board fence. The wind blows right through the chain links because they don’t put up resistance. As you can listen without pushing back, your partner will notice. It will often feel good to them. And perhaps the two of you can begin to talk to each other in a more vulnerable way as you move into collaboration rather than the other styles of communication.

Look for Opportunities to Listen

Of course, most opportunities to be a good listener don’t come when you’re being attacked. My example was extreme. Can you start to pay more attention to your spouse and practice good listening whenever you’re together, even in those quieter moments? Can you be present whenever they speak to show that you’re interested in hearing what they have to say? Can you choose to be a safe place when they talk about something troubling them by listening rather than interjecting your own opinion or trying to make things better for them? Can you let go of your judgments, not always, but in critical moments and just be there?

By the way, research and experience tell us that women typically do this better than men. Of course, not if they feel too threatened. But in general, women are more emotionally attuned and want to create harmony in their relationships. They are better listeners. As men, we also need to develop these skills.

Many women are going to hear this message and think, “My problem isn’t my husband getting angry. It’s that he’s so distanced I can’t get through to him.” I say don’t harangue him. Be interested in his world. Listen when he does speak. Make yourself a safe place for him even if his style is to avoid. It’s not your job to change his personality or communication style, just be there in a safe way when he does want to talk.

I share all of this knowing that it is hard to listen well. We lack training in good listening and many of our natural responses are harmful and not helpful. But as you learn the art of vulnerable listening you grow yourself and also open up the possibility of deeper connection and trust in your relationship.


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