This article was written by Australia Counselling member Lauren Sokolski, Melbourne relationship therapist and counsellor.
I have been thinking about how easy it is for couples, friends, family members and colleagues to misunderstand each other and wind up feeling hurt, disappointed, rejected… you get the idea.
In my work with individuals and couples, I sometimes forget my own cardinal rule: check out what I think someone means. This is usually when I get into trouble! We land up having a conversation based on my assumption of what the person meant. Eventually, when I realise that we are not talking about the same thing, I start over again and check out what it is the person really meant.
How many times have you heard your partner say: “That’s not what I meant?” How many times have you said: “That’s not what I meant?”
One thing is for sure: we’ve all been caught out making assumptions about what the other person means when we’re having a conversation or fight.
When Past Experiences Get in the Way
We tend to interpret what we think the other person means based on our past experience of this person, or our own past experiences with others. We often do what can be called ‘already always listening.’ This means that we aren’t listening to the other person from a fresh point of view. We think we already know what they are going to say or what they mean when they say something and sometimes we might be right. But the problem is, lots of times we’re wrong.
Be Curious and Ask Questions
And this is when relationships can get into trouble. One of the best tools you can use to help your relationship is to remember to ALWAYS CHECK OUT what you think the other person is saying/feeling/thinking. You might think this is a lot of work but it can save a lot of hassle in the long run.
Acknowledge Differing Perspectives
A great way to do this is to think of yourself as an investigative reporter. Practice being curious about what your partner is saying. Ask lots of questions so you can really understand where your partner is coming from. Some questions you can ask are:
Can you tell me what you most want me to understand?
What are your concerns?
What does this bring up for you?
Why is this hard for you?
Why is this important to you?
What else would you like to tell me that I haven’t already asked?
Do you feel like I get what you most want me to understand?
What could I do that would help you feel more understood by me?
Remind yourself that your partner is separate and different from you. This means that your partner’s perspective is just that: his/her perspective based on his/her own experiences. When you ask questions and try to understand your partner’s point of view, remember that this is about them – not about you. You can choose not to take personally what your partner is saying.
Be Responsible for You
Another trick is to think about how you want to BE in your discussions with your partner. Take responsibility for yourself regardless of what your partner is doing or not doing – ask yourself, who do I want to be in this relationship? For example, do you want to be open-minded, fair, calm, non-judgmental? Write down about 4-5 of the attributes you’ve chosen for yourself. Have this paper in front of you as a reminder when you are having a discussion with your partner. It can help to keep you on track during your interactions with your partner. And it doesn’t matter how your partner is being; your behaviour and responses can be based on how you want to be when in communication with your partner.
Experiment with these ideas and you will notice that assumptions will take a back seat in your communication with your partner. You will get better at hearing what it is your partner is really saying. This will enable you to respond more effectively and not get bogged down in “that’s not what I meant” and “you never listen to me.”
Australia Counselling is your link to professional relationship counsellors and marriage therapists in Australia. If you’re after a relationship therapist in Melbourne, visit the profile page of the author of this article- Lauren Sokolski, or visit our marriage and relationship issues page to find a counsellor in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra or regional areas of Australia.