The number one thing I teach couples how to do is to LISTEN to each other. Sounds simple, right? Sure, simple. But not easy. I teach couples the skill of holding space for each other which means we listen and allow someone to tell us how they feel even when it’s difficult.
Typically when someone we love starts to share their feelings with us, ESPECIALLY if those feelings have to do with us, we become defensive. We stop listening. We interrupt and try to explain, justify, correct, reason or change the way the the other person is feeling. We feel like we are being blamed or accused or attacked. So we defend. This is not holding space. And this is when communication begins to break down, when trust begins to break down and when disconnection happens. If someone cares enough about you and the relationship to tell you how they feel, your job is to listen. And to manage your own internal reactions. Which means breathing deeply and trying to stay calm even if you don’t like what the other person is saying, don’t understand why they feel that way, and want to explain or defend yourself. If you are unable to do that at first, tell your partner “I really want to hear you, but I feel defensive. Can we try again in a little bit?” and then try to get yourself in a mindset where you can be open to simply listening.
Here is what I want you to know. Someone else’s feelings are not about you. Sure, you may have elicited a feeling in someone, but that doesn’t mean you have necessarily done anything wrong. We unintentionally hurt, disappoint, offend and anger people all the time. Because each of us has our own wounds, our triggers, our own “buttons” that get pushed by other people, usually unintentionally. So if someone tells you that you pushed their buttons and caused a feeling or reaction, just listen. That’s about you, not them. Listening to someone tell you how you’ve hurt them doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily down anything wrong. It simply means you are allowing space by letting them express how they feel. And this is one way to really love someone.
On the other hand, someone’s experience of us can be important information for us. If someone is hurt, frustrated or disappointed by something we did or do, it is important to be open to hearing about this experience because there is likely something for us to learn. There may be things we do that we would like to change, ways we need to grow or things we’d like to shift about ourselves. Or not. But shutting down someone trying to express their feelings about us does not lead to connection, trust and love. Be open to hearing feedback about how your loved ones experience you. It can be difficult, but learning to be open and non-defensive is one way you can become an emotionally safe person.
As humans, are biggest needs are to be seen and heard. When we feel fully seen and heard, we feel connection. And we are wired for connection. Learn to hold space for your partner and those people in your life that you love. Try to listen so that you can understand their internal world and their experience of you. Stop taking other people’s feelings personally. Their feelings are not really about you. If you learn to give someone the gift of hearing and understanding their feelings, dynamics and energy in a relationship will shift. Your partner will begin to know that you are emotionally safe – they can express themselves to you and you will listen and understand.
If you are able to hear somebody express their feelings, the next two steps are empathy and validation. Empathy sounds like “that sounds hard” and “I’m sorry, that sounds painful.” Validation is your way of saying their feelings make sense FROM THEIR PERSPECTIVE. So you might say something like “I can understand how that made you feel that way” or “your feelings make sense based on what you told me.” If someone you love tries to share their feelings with you, please learn how to listen. This is one of the hardest skills to learn but one of the most powerful.
Also, validation does not sound like this “that makes sense from your perspective, BUT….” fill in the blank with explanation or defensiveness. And empathy does not sound like this “I’m sorry you felt that way, BUT….”. Nope. After someone shares with you, this is not the time for you to share back your point of view, why their feelings are “incorrect” or to provide rationalization or explanation. This negates everything that happened before.
I want us all to learn how to give the gift of holding space to people in our life. Our partners, our children, everyone that we love. When we really start to listen to each other, allow each other to have feelings, and to offer each other empathy and validation, that’s when we can begin to change the world, one relationship at a time.