Many couples struggle with how to effectively handle difficult topics as they come up in their relationship, or try to find ways to be sure the other person hears and understands their thoughts and feelings on an issue that can sometimes be a trigger for both of them.
One approach that many therapists suggest, and many couples find difficult to remember the steps to, is active listening where both partners sit and listen to the others uninterrupted thoughts and then repeat back what they’ve heard and believe they understand regarding what was shared. The conversation then goes back and forth until both people feel the other person has accurately processed the information they wanted to share.
Difficulties arise when one, or both, partners forget the steps and then begin to interrupt, defend or try to insist that the other person see things the same way they do. Couples struggle to hold onto the boundaries of how to handle an active listening conversation when they both can’t recall the exact steps to work toward a respectful and satisfying conclusion. As a result, couples walk away even more frustrated than before.
An easier method to try and remember is EAR. EAR stands for ENGAGE, APPRECIATE and RESPOND. Here are the steps:
ENGAGE – reach out to your partner in a moment when both of you aren’t distracted or involved in another project. It might be after the kids have gone to bed, or before the workday begins. This can be accomplished by scheduling the meeting in advance, or simply asking the other person if this is a good time to talk about an issue you both have been working on.
APPRECIATE – have a mutual agreement that each of you will allow the other person to share their thoughts, feelings and struggles without interruption. Even though you may feel that you were misquoted, or your partner has a completely skewed viewpoint on a situation, you have to hold to the agreement that you will not step in with your own opinion until it is your turn to do so. Once your partner has finished, express genuine appreciation for what they shared and repeat back what you heard them say (not what your interpretation is of their narrative).
RESPOND– when it is your turn, share your thoughts and feelings on what your perception is regarding the same event or issue. Be sure to keep your opinion focused on your own feelings and not those you have projected onto your partner and fight the urge to bring up past events that you feel somehow relate to what the two of you are struggling with currently. This is not a time to defend, dismiss or deny anything your partner has shared. Instead, you should focus on owning what your part was in the issue and validating those thoughts and feelings that your partner has shared with you.
If you feel, after you have tried the above steps, that things have gotten heated between you it would be a good idea to take a break and return to the topic, and the steps outlined above, within 24 hours and try the process over again. Remember, your goal is to achieve a greater understanding of your partner’s perspective and a deeper level of connection between the two of you.