“You’re Not Listening to Me!”     

Speaking these words with tension and tears, Mary* revealed her growing frustration with her husband. She was convinced that John* no longer cared about her feelings. Her conclusion seemed justified by his reluctance to listen to her. As I tried to understand their situation, I could empathize with her stress in that John did not appear to make any real effort to listen to her. In fact, he seemed to be more interested in getting her to listen to his side of the issue. In frustrated and angry tones he described to me how unfair Mary was to accuse him of indifference toward her when she didn’t even understand his point of view. Strangely enough, he insisted that he did care about her but she didn’t care about him. Back and forth the comments and complaints flew as John and Mary continued to “spin their wheels” in a communication pattern that was well-developed from years of practice.
It seemed clear to me that John and Mary each felt very misunderstood. This couple’s lack of mutual understanding was contributing to a negative cycle of conflict that was escalating in frequency, intensity, and duration. The resulting emotional distance between them was now threatening the health and happiness of their relationship. Clearly, John and Mary were struggling and their journey along the Marriage Highway warranted some much-needed road repair.

John and Mary are not alone in terms of their communication roadblock. Actually, they are representative of many couples who disagree about and struggle over important issues in life as they travel together on their marital journey. Like John and Mary, these couples are unable to resolve their problems because they do not understand each other’s perspective about the underlying issues. Most spouses unfortunately work much harder at being understood than they work at trying to understand the other person. More unfortunately, their relationship will continue to sustain damage as long as the negative current communication pattern remains the same.

Mutual understanding is vital to a healthy, successful relationship. Until each spouse understands the other person’s perspective, how will they be able to problem-solve efficiently and to resolve their conflicts effectively? While it is true that mutual understanding will not guarantee successful conflict resolution, it is also true that satisfactory resolution will probably not be achieved without mutual understanding. That being the case, every couple would do well to work extremely hard to develop and utilize the skills involved in attaining mutual understanding.

From my work with thousands of couples in marital therapy and in various educational settings I’ve concluded that mutual understanding involves two key components: honest self-disclosure and effective listening. If a spouse is not able or willing to disclose thoughts and feelings, how can that spouse expect to be understood? Until mind-reading skills become a reality we have to use what we do have at our disposal, that is, self-disclosure and listening. A failure to self-disclose will make mutual understanding improbable if not impossible. At the same time, self-disclosure will not be sufficient if the other spouse is not listening effectively for the purpose of increased understanding.  If both spouses are self-disclosing but neither is listening to the other, mutual understanding will not occur and the conflicts will continue.

Healthy relationships require that the two individuals work hard at two goals:  supplying self-disclosure and learning to listen. Therefore, couples need to commit to mutual understanding through the development of both components. With that conclusion in mind let’s explore the component of listening. (We’ll examine the self-disclosure component in a separate article.)

Perhaps you’ve heard distinctions made between the terms “hearing” and “listening.” Sometimes the words are used interchangeablybut at other times they are used in a contrasting manner. For example, most of us have heard someone say, “Okay, so you’re hearing me—but you’re not really listening.” In that statement a distinction is made between the two words. In my work I prefer to use the term “hearing” to describe the mechanics of the auditory process, whereas the word “listening” includes the “hearing” but extends the process to involve interpreting and understanding the key message of the speaker in the way he meant to convey it. We’ve also heard a person say, “You’re not listening to me,” and the meaning is that “you’re not agreeing with me” or “you’re not doing what I want you to do.” Let’s be clear about this issue. The test of listening is not agreement or compliance but rather increased understanding. The fact that your spouse continues to disagree with you does not prove he’s not listening. He may have listened effectively and understood your perspective quite well, but he chooses to maintain his own point of view. 
The Focus of Listening . . .

By now you’ve no doubt gotten the definite impression that listening is rather important, and right you are! The question is “Why do we need to listen to people?” In other words, what’s the goal of listening? Clearly, the basic focus is “increased understanding”—to understand as accurately as possible what the speaker is saying.

That basic goal needs to be clarified a bit. We listen to understand so that the relationship can be safeguarded and strengthened. That’s the relationship motivation for listening. However, it is possible to listen effectively but with a self-serving motivation. My underlying motivation may be tomanipulate you in some way, to convince you of my point of view, to sell you something, or to use the information as a form of “ammunition” with which to hurt or punish you. These reasons are inherently self-serving and probably are very negative in their results. In contrast to these self-serving motives, the best reason for listening effectively is that mutual understanding will be increased between the two people and, as a result, the overall relationship will be improved.

So, effective listening begins with the right focus. If you’re talking and I choose to listen, I need to focus on the top priority. My goal is to listen to you so I can understand better your point of view or whatever you’re trying to share. I will use that increased understanding to try to build you up as a person, improve the relationship we share together, and resolve any conflicts that exist between us. Throughout the listening process I will work hard to keep that goal clearly in mind.
The Failure of Listening . . .

The communication process falls apart when there is a failure to listen. Admittedly, sometimes we just stop listening when the other person is talking. Perhaps we can connect with Lucy in a “Peanuts” cartoon. Linus is looking at a brochure about camp and says to Lucy, “This new camp we’re all going to looks kind of interesting. They have guest speakers and discussion groups.” Lucy responds, “I don’t know about those discussion groups. I like talking, but I hate listening.” Like Lucy, we may be more skilled at “tuning out” than “tuning in” when listening is an issue. (I wonder if Lucy would like to read this article about listening. Probably not!)
Some years ago I participated in a communication workshop in which the facilitator divided us up into groups of two or three and we were instructed to answer a question during the four minutes allocated to the exercise. The question was this:  “Why do I stop listening when you start talking?” At the “Go” command my dyad partner and I began brainstorming and writing down our responses. At the end of the four minutes the facilitator wrote the various answers on a marker board. The list was quite revealing about things that hinder listening. “I stop listening to you when I’ve heard that before” (or, “I’m mad at you right now,” or “I don’t like what you’re saying,” or “I’m exhausted and don’t have the energy,” or “It’s too cold in here and I can’t concentrate,” or “I’m too busy thinking about what I want to say next.”) The various reasons related to issues such as prior discussions, current emotions, physical concerns, and motivational problems. The activity encouraged me to be more aware of my reasons for “tuning out” when someone is talking.

So, why do I stop listening when you start talking? I encourage you to answer that question in regard to your spouse or your relationship partners (that is, your friends, co-workers, neighbors, or extended family members). Perhaps your answers will enlighten you as to your personal hindrances in the listening process.

We may stop listening simply because we’ve lost interest in the relationship itself.  Perhaps the truth is that I don’t really care what you’re saying. Understanding you is irrelevant and unimportant to me. That being the case, I am not interested in listening to you. Why should I listen? If this description fits me, I need to re-examine my basic attitude about the relationship. If the relationship no longer has value to me, then my motivation to listen plunges into the depths of indifference. If I choose to renew my interest in the relationship, then I must utilize listening as a key component in the rebuilding process. The reason why I start listening again is that I want the relationship to survive, and to accomplish that goal I must first achieve a more basic goal—understanding you through effective listening.
The Formula for Listening . . .

How can I become a better listener? The basic formula contains three key factors:  attitude (a willingness to listen), ability (a skill for listening), and action(implementation of the skills). Some people know how to listen effectively but they choose not to listen because of unwillingness. Other people have the willingness but they say they don’t know how to listen. I cannot count the number of times in marital therapy or in communication workshops I’ve heard the comment made, “I know I’m not a good listener; I guess I just don’t know how.” Sometimes we have the willingness and the skill to listen but we just fail to act on what we want and what we know.
Here’s the good news. Truthfully, there is no legitimate reason why we cannot become quite skilled at effective listening if we really have the desire to understand other people. Attitudes can be changed, abilities can be developed, and action can result. When my desire combines with my skills to generate action, then effective listening will occur and the overall communication process elevates to a higher level. The formula makes good sense:  attitude plus ability plus action equal effective listening, and we get an “A+” on our communication report card grade.

Effective listening is often described with the term “active listening.” The word “active” suggests energy, effort, and exercise. “Passive” listening is little more than a mechanical hearing of the words being spoken with little or no attempt to gain meaningful understanding. In other words, listening is hard work. If I’m an active listener, I’m being very attentive to you and I’m working very hard to understand your self-disclosure. Furthermore, I’m using specific listening skills that increase the level of mutual understanding. With these thoughts in mind let’s explore three relevant listening skills, followed by a description of the Speaker/Listener skill. Perhaps this brief overview will motivate you to study these tools (and other listening skills) in greater detail and depth during the days to come.
#1. Paraphrase the Message.  In paraphrasing we simply repeat back to the speaker the key points or the gist of what we heard. We are careful not to include our own thoughts or opinions for, if we do, we stop listening and become the speaker in that we’re telling “our story.” The key question is, “How do we make sure that the speaker feels understood?” Does our silence prove that we understand? Does the statement, “Sure, I got it” or “I understand” prove that we do in fact understand? Not really. Our silence may simply mean that our mind is focused on an entirely different subject. We may not have a clue what the speaker means but we’re not about to admit our ignorance, or we may honestly think we do understand when we’re not even close. The only way to make sure is to paraphrase by saying, “Okay, here’s what I understand so far—(specific content)—is that correct?” The speaker will either confirm the correctness (“Yes, you understand”) or clarify the message (“Not quite. Let me repeat the part you didn’t get.”). Paraphrasing is a safe and effective way to make sure that we understand the speaker and to help the speaker feel understood by us.  

#2. Perceive the Meaning. While the speaker is talking we may notice a specific behavior that appears meaningful. We want to perceive the accurate meaning of the behavior, so rather than make assumptions we choose to use a listening skill designed to increase our understanding. For example, our Aunt Betty tears up while describing her husband’s health problems. What’s going on with Aunt Betty? We decide to check it out. As a listener we could say, “I noticed that you got tearful when you mentioned Uncle Joe.” Our Behavior Check focuses on the specific behavior we noticed. Hopefully, Aunt Betty will self-disclose and explain the meaning of the tearfulness.  If not, we could take a second step. After making a Behavior Check we can use an Emotion Check skill to gain deeper understanding of the speaker’s message. We simply put an emotion in a question format and ask for confirmation or clarification, making sure that the emotion we choose is tentative and open to change. We could say to Aunt Betty, “I noticed that you got tearful when you mentioned Uncle Joe, and I was wondering if you were feeling fearful about his upcoming surgery. Is that right?” The combination of a Behavior Check and an Emotion Check constitutes the “Check It Out” skill. Aunt Betty will either confirm the sadness or clarify the meaning of the tears. The Checking It Out skill prevents inaccurate assumptions and thereby improves understanding of the speaker.   

#3. Pursue the Material. What is the best way to get another person to disclose more thoughts and feelings to you? One effective way to pursue the material is to ask creative questions, preferably ones that are open-ended in format. In regard to questions we have two basic choices:  closed-ended and open-ended questions. A closed-ended question calls for a “yes” or “no” response with minimal elaboration. Such questions certainly have their place and can be useful, but greater self-disclosure is usually gained by asking an open-ended question. We might use a “combo” approach, such as “Are you angry with me? If you are, I’m very interested in what’s going on between us right now. What are you angry about?” We need to ask open-ended questions that encourage the speaker toward greater self-disclosure. What about a “Why” question? Some people love to ask questions that start with the word “why.” Such questions can be helpful at times, but overall I’ve found that a “why” question tends to generate defensiveness in the other person, and defensiveness is something I want to avoid if at all possible. We can almost always get the same information by using a different wording. Rather than ask, “Why are you angry with me?” we could ask, “You seem angry. What’s causing your anger with me right now?” We don’t want to get too “picky” about words, but wording is important if our goal is to get our spouse to open up and self-disclose. I’ll work hard to avoid any word or phrase or style that clearly encourages my spouse to decrease self-disclosure or to clam up altogether.    

The Speaker/Listener Skill. . . 

In my work as a therapist I’ve looked at many communication models and have used most of them, in whole or in part, in my work with couples, families, and individuals. Basically, we need a tool that works effectively when mutual understanding is the primary goal. The skill I recommend to my therapy clients and to participants in communication workshops is a tool I refer to as the “Speaker/Listener Skill.”

When a couple uses the Speaker/Listener skill, one person takes the role of the Speaker and simply self-discloses his “story” in regard to the issue being discussed. The other person is the Listener who uses a variety of listening skills to try to understand the Speaker’s message. The Listener paraphrases the message and allows the Speaker to either confirm or clarify the Listener’s paraphrase. If a clarification is needed, the process of disclosing/paraphrasing continues until the original message is deemed by the Speaker to be understood by the Listener. At an appropriate time the spouses reverse roles so that each person has an opportunity of being the Speaker. This Speaker/Listener skill can be injected into any discussion at any point as increased mutual understanding is desired. Or, if an issue has a history of “being a real problem,” the couple could choose to begin the discussion of that issue with the Speaker/Listener skill. Admittedly, the Speaker/Listener skill is not perfect and it’s not a cure-all for every communication problem, but I believe that the skill is a tool that every couple would do well to develop and use with regularity, especially at those times when mutual understanding is a high priority.
(Space in this article does not allow for a thorough description of the Speaker/Listener Skill. If you’re interested in the details of the skill, you can access the material on this website by using the link provided at the end of this article.)
Three Actions to Better Communication. . .

People who love each other should be very interested in understanding each other’s perspective about key issues in life. Mutual understanding obviously requires a combination of effective self-disclosure and listening. With that in mind I’d like to encourage you to consider three actions that will improve the communication in your relationship journey.

First, devise and adopt a “Commitment to Communication” declaration that is unique to your marriage. Begin your declaration with a goal statement, that is, what you want to accomplish through your ongoing communication with each other. Follow up with a list of specific communication behaviors you prefer to use and whatever items you want to avoid. Each spouse can sign and date the completed document. Once adopted, the document can become a type of “roadmap” that will enable you to travel safely and successfully along the Communication Highway. (A sample document is available on this website. A link to a PDF version of the document is provided at the end of the article.)
Secondly, devote yourself to the development of specific communication skills. Many helpful books are available for you to study. Participate in communication workshops or seminars that are offered in your community. You can request assistance from a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in your area who has expertise in couple communication training. You were not born with an innate ability to listen effectively; therefore, you must learn to listen if you want good communication within your marriage.

Thirdly, develop a positive communication climate (or environment) in your home that promotes meaningful self-disclosure and effective listening. For good communication to occur both spouses need to feel physically and emotionally safe with each other. Work hard to maintain the behaviors that promote safety and, at the same time, work equally hard to refrain from behaviors that decrease safety. The maintenance of a safe climate requires honest disclosures and discussions about specific behaviors that relate to physical and emotional safety.

Concluding thoughts. . . 

Effective communication is certainly not a total guarantee for a successful marriage, but it does provide a realistic reassurance for a healthy, happy relationship. Allow me to express this same thought in a poetic format:  “To understand your friend or mate Just listen and communicate.” This article has emphasized the importance of listening skills that promote mutual understanding. When effective listening is combined with sufficient self-disclosure, both spouses will have a better understanding of the key issues that exist within the marriage. As the relationship partners understand each other more fully, they should be more equipped to resolve differences and to realize development in the maturity of the marriage. As a result, the Marriage Highway will be a better road on which to travel, and, hopefully, the couple will reach their relationship destination safely and successfully.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.

*The names of these two spouses are fictitious, but the individuals are representative of couples who struggle with communication issues.

Resources for you . . .

If you are interested in several helpful resource books or relevant websites that deal
​with marital communication and conflict, check out the materials on this website. Go to

Home Page, click on Resources, then on List of Categories, and then on Communication and Conflict. Or, you can just click here.

To view a sample declaration of the “Commitment to Communication” in a PDF format  referenced earlier, please click the image to the right or just click here.


For more information (PDF) about the Speaker/Listener skill mentioned earlier in the article, please click the image to the right or just click here.







VIDEO:  To see a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "How Listening Helps Relationships" please click the image to the right or just click here.





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