I was in the middle of a “discussion,” with my husband the other day in which I could feel myself getting more frustrated that he wasn’t understanding my viewpoint. I found myself doing something I often observe couples do, which was saying the same thing louder using different words, in an effort to be heard. I even felt myself getting a little panicky that he wasn’t understanding me.
Predictably, what I was getting back from him wasn’t an increase in understanding…it was his same responses fed back to me using different language and…louder.
He was matching my communication process, and I was matching his.
We were stuck in a typical and dissonant couple communication pattern in which all we could hear was ourselves. We were like two musicians trying to play a piece together, but we couldn’t hear the other person’s part over our own.
Continuing in this pattern is unlikely to restore harmony, but there is a question that couples can ask when they find themselves in one of these déjà vu episodes.
The question is, “What do you think I still might not understand about your position?”
Then, listen to the answer.
You might be asking yourself, “Why would I ask my partner that question when I am actually worried that he/she isn’t understanding where I am coming from?” The answer is that harmonious communication requires your partner believing you are really listening to him or her. Also, if you are really curious about asking more about your partner’s viewpoint, you might learn more about where he/she is coming from than you assumed you knew—especially because couples treat each other in the present according to past interactions and often incorrectly assume motive and meaning.
Going back to the music world, anyone who has studied a musical instrument enough to have performed with other musicians knows that a harmonious performance requires that each musician not only listen to themselves, but that they also listen to the other parts being played by the other musicians.
I frequently accompany vocalists and musicians on the piano. If, for example, I’m not listening to a violinist play her part as much as I am listening to myself, I can easily end up moving ahead or trailing behind the violinist, with a resulting dissonance akin to nails on a chalkboard instead of a pleasing harmony. An effective performance always requires that I listen to the other performers. Like many other things, it is a skill that takes intention and practice.
Communication is similar. If you are only listening to yourself, you are likely to end up with friction. Asking your partner what you might not understand slows down the process, and allows your partner to be more flexible about hearing your position. If asked authentically, it can actually have a soothing effect.
The best time to ask this question is while things are not escalated. Over time, it can become part of regular problem solving…with practice…and if you need to be reminded, you can always start out your discussions with a harmonious symphony playing in the background.