Intention and Effect
As you share something with your partner you hope to have some need of yours met. Maybe you want to create connection, be heard, contribute to your partner, etc. If you are reading this article, you have likely worked hard at becoming aware of your feelings and needs and being skillful in expressing yourself. A big part of that skill is assessing the effect you are having on your listener.
You continuously assess your effect on others and respond at various levels of conscious awareness. It's the unconscious assessment and response that can create disconnect.
Here is an example I have seen many times in work with couples. Lupe shares something she thinks would be a good idea for Aziz to do. She is excited about her idea and insight. Aziz is quiet and looking down. There is silence for a moment, then Lupe continues to talk about her idea. She isn't tracking the effects of her communication on Aziz. She may unconsciously interpret his quietness as an indication that he hasn't heard her or that he disagrees so she keeps talking.
I ask Lupe to pause and check in with Aziz by asking, "What comes up for you when I share this idea?" Aziz says he hears criticism and imagines that Lupe thinks he isn't working hard enough. From this point Lupe can offer empathy to Aziz or he can ask Lupe to express her feelings and needs behind her idea.
Staying conscious about how you are affecting your listener, and remembering to check in about that, helps you create and maintain connection. Here are some simple mindfulness tasks that can help you track the effect you are having on your listener:
§ Maintain eye contact or at least visual contact with your listener. I am surprised at how often partners look away from each other when they are speaking. It may be that you need some self-empathy for nervousness around being heard and accepted. I am guessing it is hard to look up if you imagine your partner will reject you or your ideas.
§ Track your listener's body. Does s/he lean forward or back, look down or away or maintain eye contact? Does s/he clench hands, pull the shoulders up, or tighten muscles in the face?
§ Notice if you want to be "right" or connected. If you notice you want to be right, then pause and give yourself empathy. Behind the impulse to be right are important needs that some part of you imagines won't be met unless you over power your listener by convincing her or him how right you are.
§ Share just a few sentences at a time and then check for effect. Less words means more connection. You may have the strategy of out talking others to get your needs met or processing out loud to find clarity. These can be costly strategies. If your partner listens silently, s/he may be experiencing little reactions as you talk and eventually doesn't hear anything you're saying.
§ Create the listening you want. Before you share something ask if your partner is up for hearing it. If it is something vulnerable, let him or her know this and make a request that will help you feel safe to share. Before you speak make a request about the kind of listening you want. You may want empathy, advice, perspective, or just to know how what you say lands for your partner. You might find it difficult to overcome the habit being silent or indirect when noticing how someone responds to you. In your commitment to honesty and connection, you may often find that it's essential to leave behind ideas about what's polite. As you become more able to consciously track your effect on others, your next step is to say what you notice. For example, "As I'm talking, I notice you are turning towards the window. I'm wondering what's coming up for you?"
In conversations with your partner this week, check in at least once a day about what happens for your partner as he or she hears you express something.