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Learning to be heard

by Mel Schwartz, LCSW

One of the most common yet frustrating experiences of relationships is the roadblock we hit around communicating. When we initiate a challenging discussion it’s more than likely that the other party may not be truly listening. More often than not, they may be defending their territory and preparing their rebuttal while we’re still trying to articulate our thoughts.

Relationships—whether romantic or platonic—typically fall prey to two distinct types of verbal exchanges when they are personally charged. The communication will either lead one to defend themselves or to quiet their reactions so that they might learn something from the dialogue. So the question is how to better the chances to be heard.

The preface

When I choose to express something that will be difficult or challenging for the other to hear, I find that devoting a sentence or two, as a preface to the conversation is most helpful. In other words—setting up the discourse to better the chance to be heard. I often counsel individuals or couples in this art. We need to set the stage so that our words won’t fall on death ears.

It may be as simple as, “I have a problem, I’m wondering if you can help,” or “ I’m confused, can you try to help me understand.” When we do that the other person has been engaged so to speak and we have invited them in rather than abruptly jumping into an assault as to what they have done wrong.

This may be easier said than done, as it’s simpler to express our anger than what may lie beneath it. Typically anger is a mask for fear or pain. It’s a far more accessible emotion although not as primary as the vulnerable feelings that hide beneath the fury. When we launch into anger we can be assured that the other individual is no longer listening. When we preface and share our hurt in a thoughtful manner, we increase the chances of being heard and understood.

What we have to say may be compelling and so very important to communicate but if our words are lost in the reactive defensiveness of the other person, it’s becomes an exercise in sheer futility. We have guaranteed our own invalidation. The argument then ensues and the relationship suffers.

Prefacing is an invitation to have a shared inquiry. Shared inquiries tend not to be overly personalized and the reactivity is lessened. Don’t begin your sentence with the word, you. If you begin in the first person—I—the other person is still likely listening.

To have a true dialogue or a more meaningful exchange requires two new monologues. Unless each party is modifying their interaction, the old tired replay ensues. You can initiate your part of a dialogue by taking a moment before you begin to speak to better the chances that the other person is listening. Ask yourself how you can best articulate what you wish without turning the conversation adversarial. In so doing, you are likely shifting your own inner monologue—enabling a healthier dialogue.

Mel Schwartz is a psychotherapist with offices in Westport Ct and NYC. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory or his website. This article may not be reprinted, reproduced, or retransmitted in whole or in part without the express written consent of the author.

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