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Two Ways of Listening in Your Relationship Communication

Communication in relationship

A client sent us an example of a breakdown from her marriage. She said …

I cleaned out the very dirty and cluttered garage making more space for the car and his astronomy equipment while he was away for the afternoon. He came home, drove into the garage, and I waited for a comment. None.

Finally after an hour or so I blurted out “Didn’t you notice anything different about the garage?” He said no. I took him out to the garage and pointed out what I’d done. His response “I didn’t notice because I was taking stuff out of the car.” Still no thanks or recognition for my hours of work. I ended up feeling frustrated and unappreciated."

How we listen makes a big difference.

It's an everyday communication, of the sort that happens in relationships everywhere. Perhaps in your relationship too?

There are several elements of this communication that could be improved by the couple. In this post we’ll focus on one particular aspect: How (and if) we listen to each other.

When you read the story, it’s easy to jump straight the conclusion that this guy should just pay more attention and say Thank You to his wife when she cleans up their garage. Problem fixed. Simple, right?

Certainly it behooves all of us to notice our partner’s efforts and express our appreciation. In fact, Notice + Appreciate would be a great relationship bumper sticker. You can safely keep doing that for the rest of your life.

But there’s a deeper aspect of this interaction that often eludes people, even as they are baffled and frustrated about the quality of their communication. It has do with how we listen; what we listen for.

See if you recognize this experience: You’re in a discussion with your partner, and you’re not agreeing with his/her assessment of the situation. You have a retort ready before they even finish talking. You jump in with your assessment of what’s going on, but before you get to finish, your partner starts their retort. And back and forth you go.

As in the example from our client above. After her husband didn’t notice her efforts in the garage, she explained what she did. To which he immediately replies, “I didn’t notice because I was taking stuff out of the car.”

Another frequent example we hear from clients (and have experienced ourselves, too) goes like this:

You: "I often feel you don’t really listen to me."

Partner: "What do you mean, I always listen to you!"

You: "Like yesterday after work when I was telling you about what happened, you just kept staring at your phone and didn’t say a thing."

Partner: "I heard you just fine, I was just in the middle of something."

You: "You’re always in the middle of something when I’m talking to you!"

You can imagine how it goes from here.

Listen to Retort

What it comes down to is an important difference in how we listen. It’s the difference between listening to retort vs. listening to understand.

Listening to retort it what you saw in the examples above. As soon as one partner has made a statement, the other jumps in with a retort. If there’s any kind of tension involved, it’s often a defensive or sharp retort. It’s as if, in the listeners mind, the retort is already forming as their partner is speaking and they’re just waiting for an opening to insert the retort. The listener’s attention is on their own retort, not really on what the speaker is saying.

Listen to Understand

Contrast that with listening to understand. In this mode of listening, your focus is on getting clarity and understanding about what your partner is saying. You listen with curiosity. Once your partner is done with their statements, you might ask clarifying or deepening questions to further your understanding.

For example, the guy above who said, “I didn’t notice because I was taking stuff out of the car” (i.e. a quick retort) might instead have asked something like, “It sounds like you really wanted me to notice what you did, huh?” Or, “How do you feel about me not noticing what you did?” Or, "It looks great! What inspired you to clean out the garage?"

In the example where you tell your partner, “Like yesterday after work when I was telling you about what happened, you just kept staring at your phone and didn’t say a thing”; your partner might have asked, “How was that for you?” or “Why is it important to you that I put down the phone when you speak?”

This type of response aims to deepen understanding of your partner. In order to respond this way, the listener puts their attention on their partner, not on their own reply. They display care and curiosity about what is important to their partner, and why. Of course, we’d hope the partner would do the same thing in return.

Listening to understand vs listening to retort will make a huge difference, positive or negative, in your communication and connection. In a relationship with a lot of “listen to retort”, it becomes less safe to express yourself freely. But if you practice “listen to understand”, you’ll find a deepening sense of intimate safety with each other.

Easy choice, right?

If you find yourself habitually and reflexively retorting to your partner's statements, you can try this 3-step practice:

  1. When your partner is done talking, don't respond at all. Say nothing at first. Zip it.

  2. Take a deep breath.

  3. Then ask a question

If you can see the value in learning these kinds of helpful tips to improving communication in your relationships, we invite you to attend our new communication course:

Connect! Loving Communication for Couples

In this brand-new communication course, you’ll be personally guided by Sonika and Christian. You’ll learn the art and practical tools to keep your connection alive while you communicate with kindness and clarity.

A few highlights of what you’ll learn and practice:

  • How to make an emotional connection (the prerequisite for successful communication).

  • How to modify or avoid triggers that keep you from listening.

  • How to stay in the moment as you communicate.

  • How to access vulnerable communication and hold space for your partner to do so.

  • How to move yourself from anger to love and appreciation.

  • How to clean up mistakes and make effective apologies.

  • Plus, specific step-by-step communication tools to accomplish all this.

Register for the course below.

You're always welcome to contact us for more information or with questions.

Sonika & Christian

LoveWorks: We believe relationships are meant to be an empowering, fun, passionate, safe place to grow, love, and learn. Where we get to be more of who we are, not less. We know it’s not always easy, but it can definitely be easier! With our unique and practical approach to relationship, you learn how to resolve conflicts quickly and enjoy fulfilling intimacy for the rest of your life. To learn more or contact us, visit

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