If you ask anyone that knows me, I love to fix things and will try to fix far too many things. Part of it has to do with me enjoying the satisfaction I feel when I make something better. I feel good seeing my work, a representation of my talents and time. Often I wish I could extend my handiwork to my relationships. When there’s a problem or broken connection in my relationship with someone, I wish I could just as easily swoop in and fix it. But any wise thirty-something will tell you; relationships are not easy to fix.
If there’s anything my marriage has taught me is that, while navigating some relationships can be challenging, like any of life’s fruits, you have to spend some time and energy working on each of them to reap the benefits of the seeds you’ve sown. One aspect of myself I realized early on in my marriage that I needed to work on or fix was my ability to listen.
I didn’t come to this level of self-awareness on my own either. I’m not a saint.
I was sitting in therapy with my husband using this technique that Barbara, our marriage counselor, was teaching us to help us better communicate. The three of us sat closely in her small office. Just a vintage secretary desk, a tall bronze floor lamp, and the orange velvet cushions on the loveseat separated us. As the air vent on the ceiling hummed, I breathed in deeply the warm air and my husband’s cologne. Tears burned through my composure as they streamed down my face. Barbara helped us through this difficult conversation. Chris wanted to leave his corporate job to go back to school to become a writer. I was terrified of the idea, and we struggled to figure out a way to agree on any of it.
Barbara called the three-step technique, this formulaic way of relating, the Imago Dialogue. The exercise called for a sender and receiver, and I was the receiver. As the receiver, I first had to mirror everything my husband, the sender had to say, without distorting his thoughts or feelings. What I thought I did so well, being a good listener, quickly proved to be my struggle.
Step 1 – Mirroring
For Step 1, Barbara instructed Chris the sender, to begin with, “Can I talk to you? Are you available to talk now?”
He didn’t offer a smile, nor a smirk, or cheer. Nothing. He wore that West Point facade like his skin. When I said yes, his nostrils flared, and his eyes signaled, you need to understand me now.
As I repeated back to him as accurately as I could mirror what he revealed, I realized that I had to give up my feelings to even have a chance at remembering all of the specific details he was sharing with me. As he continued to talk, it irritated me to have to entertain his version of events. But surely, I couldn’t be the great listener I proclaimed to be if I could not simply repeat back exactly what he said he felt, despite disagreeing. I was forced to let go of my side of things in order to show up and hear him.
But wouldn’t he think his perspective was more important if I got it or showed him I could understand him?
I reluctantly asked, “Do you have more to say about that Chris?”
My mind screamed. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Invite him to go deeper into his world? Mirroring was so hard.
Step 2 – Validation
Fine, I have this! Validation. How does what he’s saying make sense to him (not to me)?
Barbara made sure I fully recognized that understanding was not all Chris needed from me. He had to know that I knew he wasn’t crazy for how he felt or what he thought. And just because I could see his side of things didn’t mean that I agreed to anything.
I began, “You got to a point where you felt like you were just providing financially for your family but you didn’t feel appreciated by all of us all the time. Is that right? Did I get it all? No… Ok. Please help me get this right.”
As he talked about coming home late after everyone had already passed out, I imagined his words. I could see him sitting at his desk eating dinner alone, surrounded by work and I suddenly felt remarkable sorrow for him. At least the kids and I were together. Maybe just as frustrated, at least I was home in my pajamas.
But I wanted him to see my pain too. Could he see that I was also hurting?
“I can see how you felt this way. It makes sense that you could feel stuck because you were trying to do the right thing for us. You were trying to take care of your family, but the grind is also making you tired and frustrated. I can imagine you feeling like because you weren’t fulfilling your purpose or you didn’t think of yourself as really being successful on your own terms.”
Step 3 – Empathy
Barabra continued to press. “That’s thoughtful, and I can see that you are trying to get to that place where Chris is now. As we move into Step 3, Empathy, now that you’ve listened to what Chris has said and you’ve come to better understand his thoughts, wonder how he might feel with those thoughts. What might that look like carrying his thoughts around?”
Gloom and heartache flooded my system. My chest tightened, and a lump emerged in my throat. I felt Chris’ deep, unshakable sadness all over me. Somehow I was one with him, and an immediate flash of guilt for not seeing his situation earlier covered me. That is when I began to cry.
“Tell me what just happened there. What was that? What changed for you?” Barbara asked as she wrinkled her entire face in real interest.
“Well, I guess I feel him. Uhm, when I heard him…”
“Tell him!” Barbara interjected as she nodded towards Chris.
“When I heard you say you felt stuck and worried about not living up to your purpose, it made me think maybe you felt frustrated…”
“What else?” she tugged.
“What else?” she pressed on.
“Maybe scared …. And alone.” My voice cracked as it trailed off and the tears carried in a wave of unexpected but longed for relief.
Barbara had warned us that this three-step process could result in some emotional shifts, but how on earth was this possible. My intense anger and self-pity melted into genuine concern for my husband and his feelings.
Barbara grabbed her bamboo tissue dispenser and offered me a Kleenex with a look of awe and wonder on her face.
Taking a quick glance at her clock on the desk, she said, “We don’t have too much time left, but you both did so much with this technique.” She continued to coach, “As you released some of your feelings, the tension caused by them relaxes, and they became a little less tangled.” Barbara’s wide smile ushered in the sense of peace. “You could feel how things freed up just enough to get the love and connection flowing around this incredibly difficult issue for both of you. Keep up the good work and practice this technique if you think you can at home.”
As we gathered our things, we said thank you and walked out. Once the ten-foot heavy wooden door completely closed behind us, we instantly grabbed each other tightly in the empty hallway and held each other in silence for what felt like forever. After some time, we unclasped our grip, just enough for our hands to find each other as we walked towards the elevators. We never spoke, but the energy that flowed between us was incredible. Although we hadn’t yet solved our problem, we felt so much closer, which meant that we were on our way to being better.
I didn’t realize until this experience that I needed to learn how to listen better. I thought having a solid response demonstrated both how well you listened and how valid your take was. Before I had fully appreciated the importance of actively clearing away the noise of points and positions as well as the clutter of emotions, to more easily hear all of the thoughts and feelings of someone else. To begin with, I thought I could see clearly through the lens of my ideas, my truth, my side, my feelings, and my beliefs up until then. But it all gets in the way if you’re not careful especially when the issue is freighted with strong feelings.
When you truly listen, you arrive in the magical place of existing with someone exactly where they are in that moment. And understanding is a powerful gift to give. I certainly had no plans of letting go of anything when we first sat down with Barbara. The only thing I thought could fix our issue was my husband agreeing with how I felt. But I learned that it feels not just good, but it feels extraordinary when connection and love are sparked in the place of understanding with someone you love.
I highly recommend trying the Imago dialogue as both the sender and receiver. You will not only learn to be a better listener, you will also learn how to share your most difficult thoughts and feelings. For more information on the Imago Dialogue please reference chapter 9 of Getting the love you want by Hendrix.*
*Hendrix, H. (2008). Getting the love you want: a guide for couples. New York: H. Holt And Co.