As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, April 21, 2005,

He said, “Really, I wasn’t angry. I told her that in the car.”

She said, “He barely said a word the whole drive home. So, I knew he was mad at me. I just don’t know what for”

Stephanie and Jim spoke in a style that was part assault and part defensive maneuver. This was only their second couple therapy session, and they were already repeatedly frustrated by these conversational stalemates. Each one was hopeful that I would understand their plight and explain the objective truth to the other. That’s the way it often is with relationships. When there is a disagreement, you think that the other person just does not understand your point. If only he could get what you are saying, then all would be well. Similarly, when he decides not to follow your advice, you assume that he doesn’t really understand or is making a mistake. This experience applies to love, friendship, and family relationships.

We all have unique perceptions, thoughts, and feelings when confronted with any given circumstance. You feel good when people to listen to and understand those experiences. And, don’t you feel even better when they agree with you? This is called being affirmed, and it’s something we all need. Sometimes, you might be so anxious to be affirmed that you begin talking before they even finish. This failure to listen carefully is not lost on a spouse, sibling, or co-worker. It makes him feel misunderstood and overlooked. If he is doing the same thing, then you also end up feeling misunderstood. This is a cycle that can spiral out of control.

To break the cycle, you need to learn to listen empathically. This means taking a deep breath and really trying to understand the other person’s experience. Listen with the intent of trying to see the world through the other’s eyes. Don’t let minor flaws in his logic or presentation distract you. Encourage him to keep explaining until you think you really understand. Now you are ready for the next step.

Repeat the message back in your own words. Psychologists call this mirroring. If your image isn’t a match, it lets the other person correct your misperceptions so that you really “get it.” When that happens, the power of feeling understood is tremendous. Both of you will no longer feel like your relationship is a battlefield. You feel safe with each other, able to lower their defenses and talk more openly.

It is important not to confuse understanding with agreeing. Empathic listening and mirroring are ways of getting to know someone and express that knowledge. After you “get” what the other person is saying, he can listen more openly if you disagree, make a suggestion, or share your experience. For any relationship to be successful in the long term, both people must understand and appreciate each other’s experiences. Although this comes naturally with shared thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, it is equally important to do when experiences differ. But we all know that can be much more difficult.

Feeling understood and accepted for who you are gives a relationship a strong foundation. You can feel truly close in a safe and open relationship. That closeness allows you to realize that sometimes your experiences are not as different as they seem. And when they truly are different, that’s ok too.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ