Do You Really Listen to Your Spouse? Setting the Example for Our Kids

Humans don’t know how to listen.

That’s what Enzo, the narrating dog of the novel, Racing in the Rain, claims. He says that since dogs can’t speak, they’re attentive, focused and curious listeners.

By contrast, though people know how to talk (which Enzo envies, BTW), we have no idea how to listen; we lack curiosity. Our conversations appear interactive, but many of us mock-listen—and interrupt—with our own interests at the fore.

I’ve been thinking about how Enzo’s perspective applies to the subject of respect, both in terms of teaching it to our children, and maintaining it with our spouses, especially when nerves get frayed and tempers short.

In her post on Teaching Children Respect, Jennifer Shakeel notes that our kids learn respect when we respect them. I imagine her first tip for parents would warm Enzo’s heart:

Listen to your children and they will listen to you.

Good advice; great advice, even. Yet it will, likely, fall on deaf ears if we parents don’t make the effort to hone, and model, listening skills for our kids when we communicate with our spouses and, yep, pretty much everyone else.

After all, well before we have two-way conversations with them, our children are kind of like Enzo: all eyes and ears, unable to speak our language, yet tuned in to us and, I’d argue, to the tenor and nuance of our words, silences, and attitudes.

How can we better listen to each other, so our children learn to listen to us?

A great first step is to tackle the habit of interrupting. As I write those words, I’m daunted. Why? Because, loath as I am to admit it: I’m a chronic-interrupter.

Professionally, it’s called intruding: a tool-of-the-trade designed to shift my clients from the minutiae of their experiences to their goals, to empowered perspectives, actions, and the like. So, as a coach, I’m a justified-interrupter.

But on the home front, Enzo’s got me pegged, especially in heated conversations or disagreements with my wife.

I have a bunch of excuses for my behavior—I’m a passionate person and am unskilled at holding my thoughts and feelings in; my mom’s a seasoned interrupter and taught me well—but my justifications don’t matter. Especially, given what the research says:

Interrupting is about real or perceived power, or about the effort to exert that power.

It’s called conversational dominance and, to be honest, I can’t stand that it’s one of my bad habits. So now, whenever I interrupt my wife, I imagine Enzo shaking his head at me and I do my best to stop myself. Pronto!

Listening Tips for Couples (a.k.a., Tips to Ramp Up Mutual Respect):
1. If you’re an interrupter, practice interrupting yourself mid-interruption. Apologize, regroup and listen, really listen to what your spouse is saying to you.

2. If you’re the “interruptee,” consider taking back your power and ask your spouse to let you finish speaking. Say it more than once, if needed.

3. Pause after your spouse finishes speaking and, instead of responding with an opinion, first ask him or her an open-ended question.

What’s an open-ended question? One that starts with “how” or “what,” such as:
How do you feel about that?
What’s important to you about that?

4. Then, concentrate on really listening so you can better understand what your spouse is saying, regardless of whether you agree. (Yes, this is a repeat-tip.)

5. Express appreciation for what your spouse has said, if only by acknowledging that you get that the opinion expressed matters to him or her.

6. If you find yourself drifting, or building a case in your head—meaning, if you’re mock-listening—refocus and, when your spouse pauses, admit to having gone away and ask them to repeat what you missed.

Having trouble wrapping your ears around so much listening? Consider:

How much do you value being listened to? Do you want your kids to listen to you?

If being listened to by your children, your spouse, plus anyone else with whom you converse, matters to you, then, do your part to cultivate your listening-prowess. Doing so will enhance your relationship with your spouse and model a mutually respectful relationship for your kids.

Do you hear what I’m saying???? 🙂


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