As a marriage counselor I frequently hear couples complain about poor communication. Although it could be either the man or woman, it is most often the woman who says he never listens, he is always trying to fix the problem for her.
There is a YouTube video that captures the strained couple’s dynamic beautifully. It’s called “It’s Not About the Nail.” In the video, the couple is sitting on the couch and she describes a pain in her head that won’t go away. She wants him to understand her pain and she cuts him off when he tries to offer a solution. The scene expands and we see that she has a nail in her forehead. He is as frustrated trying to address the source of her pain as she is in her search for empathy. She says “It’s not about the nail” meaning that she doesn’t want the problem fixed. She wants to be emotionally soothed.
Most people want to be listened to, and feel that they can solve their own problems. Solutions are the last thing they want to hear from their partner. After all, they have lived with this problem and have more information and insight than an outsider. Just listening provides a valuable service of allowing the other to vent.
The partner who wants to fix the problem has good intentions. They view the conversation as a task. They genuinely care and want the other’s pain to stop. If they could just solve the problem for them, their pain would end. But the one with the problem views the conversation as a relational process. They want to feel connected, understood and emotionally soothed.
So here’s the problem. If this cycle continues, the one with the problem will feel belittled, as if they are not capable of solving their own problems. Or they may shut down after numerous unsatisfying attempts to be heard. They may think that their partner is incapable of empathy and lives in a purely rational world instead of a feeling world. They will stop sharing their emotional struggles.
Sometimes just listening empathically is the solution. It’s really not that hard. Here are the steps:
1. Restate what you have been told. This lets them know that you are listening.
2. Paraphrase it in your own words. This lets them know that you fully understand.
3. Identify the emotions that the other experiences. This lets them know you understand how they feel.
4. Ask if there is anything you can do. This conveys empathy.