Seek to Understand Rather than be Understood

This phrase, part of the Prayer of St. Francis (attributed to St. Francis of Assissi) and the fifth of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, is one of the fundamental principles I use in my work with couples. Its importance and value was dramatized for me again on Friday when I met with a couple for the first time, married just seven months. The husband (I’ll call him Hank) arrived ten minutes before his wife (Camille), who was stuck in traffic, so I got a chance to hear his summary of the situation. He had a list of some serious grievances – that she invaded his privacy, belittled him, harangued him, and withheld sex. He claimed that much of this stemmed from a lack of trust engendered by his having had numerous affairs and for fathering a child out of wedlock prior to their marriage, and her unwillingness to forgive him for these actions.

When she arrived I asked her to briefly describe the issues in their marriage as she saw them. “Communication” was her reply (the first answer I get nine out of ten times when I ask couples for a summary of their marital problems). I summarized Hank’s description of his grievances and she agreed that his characterization of her behavior was more or less accurate, but she added that he didn’t take her concerns seriously, and that he would abruptly cut off discussion when he began to get the slightest bit uncomfortable. I then asked her what God thought of their marriage (they had revealed that the attended church regularly). Tears welled up as she said “He’s not happy about it.”

Nor, of course, were they, and it was heartbreaking to see how they’d become trapped in a cycle of finger-pointing, anger, and resentment despite the genuine love they professed and frequently exhibited for each other. They, like so many other couples, were focusing on the undesirable behavior of their partners and trying to change it while at the same time complaining about it.

I directed our discussion towards the principle of seeking to understand the motivation for their partner’s behavior: what was it trying to tell them about underlying feelings? Redirecting a couples session in this way is almost never easy; both individuals want to hold on to blaming the other for the situation and as a result often can’t really hear what the other is saying. So yes, in a broad sense this is a “communication problem,” but it’s more accurately a problem of not listening because each party feels that they have a legitimate grievance.

Hear the Experience

And they almost always do. But grievances are usually expressed in attack terms (“You never….you always”) and most of us don’t respond too well when attacked. SO what I did with this couple, and do in almost all of my couples counseling, is to lower the temperature of the dialogue, slow it down, and begin to tease out the thoughts and feelings underlying the problematic behavior. I started with Camille, asking her to tell Hank what feelings arose in her when he shut down (either by walking away or refusing to talk more about an issue). “When you close down like that I feel that I’m going to lose you, and I get panicked and start to feel desperate.” I then asked Hank to repeat what he’s heard Camille say. “So when I don’t respond to everything you say, you don’t like it.” This missed the mark by quite a bit, and retained much of the combative tone that brought them into see me, but after a couple of repetitions Hank was able to hear exactly what Camille had experienced, which visibly softened him to her.

“Over time, with practice, couples can restructure the way they talk to each other, so that what one says to another is mirrored back, validated, and empathized with. They move from a staring at exteriors to a sharing of interiors, as they learn to participate in the emotional realm of the other, while holding onto their own, separate experience. Whenever two people are involved, there are always two realities. These realities will always be different in small and large ways, no matter what. Nonetheless, the reality of the other person can be understood, accepted, valued, and even loved.”*

*From “Getting the Love You Want” by Harville Hendricks