Okay, I’m not going to keep you in suspense. The word is “but.”
Newsflash! Most of us are not great listeners.
Oh sure, we incline our heads in each other’s direction, show great eye-contact and even mutter a helpful “uh huh” here and there. We put on a really good show. Or at least I know I do. After all, I get a lot of practice, being as it’s my job and all.
But behind this attentive façade is a virtual mind-field of narcissistic thoughts that distract us from really listening. . . so many, in fact, that most of us end up listening, not in order to understand, but in order to respond.
And by respond I mean rebut. As in oppose.
So that doesn’t work, right? Because if our goal is to come up with a good rebuttal to our partner’s position, in effect to win the argument, then how can we truly be listening to them? (If, like me, you're saying to yourself right now, "Well, I can do both things at once," I have another newsflash for you: multitasking is a myth.)
In my work with couples and their relationships, I ask both partners to explore an entirely different kind of listening, one in which the goal is to truly understand their partner instead of working to score against them in an argument. Mind-blowing, right?
But I find most people can get behind this idea. After all, they too want to really be heard and understood. And they realize on some level that they’re falling short when it comes to really hearing, and thus connecting with, their partner.
So my clients diligently review my conflict discussion template, learn their different roles, and file away phrases they can use to show their understanding, like “I hear you” and “That makes sense,” or, simply, “I understand.”
Then, they practice. Right there in my office.
I know; it’s awkward.
But it’s an essential step. Because this is where they break down, where they crash into the “but” roadblock.
It goes something like this:
Partner #1 (initiating the conversation with a fabulous, non-blaming I Statement): “When you come home late from work without calling, I feel lonely and sad, like maybe you don’t value our time together, or that other things are more important to you than our relationship.”
Partner #2 (starting off well): “Hmm. That makes a lot of sense. So I understand what you’re saying. I hear you.” . . . (wait for it) . . . “BUT it’s really hard for me to take time out of work to text or call you about my plans.”
No, no, no, no, no! No. Don’t do it. Ever.
OK, time for a little grammar refresher course.
You might remember that the word “but” is what’s known as a conjunction, a word used to connect clauses or sentences. And connecting is good, right? Makes us feel all warm and fuzzy.
But in the example above, the word “but” connects a perfectly good statement of understanding with a new, opposing opinion, completely negating the understanding we tried so hard to remember to express, and not even five seconds after we expressed it!
You see the problem. If we’re already opposing, we haven’t taken much time to really listen.
I get it. It may be that it is really hard for you to take time out of work to text your partner, but the time to present that perspective is later, after your partner has had their turn to air their feelings. For now, shut up with the “but.”
Incidentally, there are times when it’s okay, even helpful, to use the word “but.”
“When you left the cap off the toothpaste this morning, again, it made me want to poke my eye out with my toothbrush, but then, I remembered the great sex we had last night, and I got over it.”
See? It works there.
Usually, though, we should just jettison the “but” clause, opting instead to end our response right where it started, at “I hear you.”
Anne Barker is a writer and psychotherapist in Omaha, NE, specializing in working with couples and individuals on all manner of relationship issues. Visit Anne’s relationship blog at Hitch Fix or her website to find out more about her writing and services.