Life & Style | General

Hearing between the words

When Aquarius’s go-to counsellor, Helen Williams, said many of her clients’ relationship problems were down to communication issues, we decided it was time for a crash course. Helen joined us and a group of Aquarius readers for an evening at The Gramercy, to talk about why it’s so easy for couples to get it wrong, and how to go about getting it right

  • By Louisa Wilkins
  • Published: 10:57 October 30, 2012
  • Aquarius

  • Image Credit: Getty Images
  • People probably don’t want to hear about what they should do to ease their migraines, they probably just want you to listen to how tough it is for them, to give them a big hug and to care.

Know your mate type

“Why is it that I constantly ask my partner questions about what’s going on in his life, but he doesn’t seem to be as interested in me?” Helen says: Different personality types seek out different mates. We’re all either looking for a help mate, a play mate, a mind mate, or a heart mate. We don’t consciously know what type we are looking for – it’s just a conditioned response. If you are looking for a mind mate, or a heart mate, it may be important to you to have long talks about your day, and to share stuff.

Maybe for your partner, it isn’t. Also, men and women are often quite different in this way in the sense that, after a long day, a woman might want to talk about it, but a man might just want to be quiet for a while. Try giving him a bit of space when he first comes home to wind down, and then sitting together and having a period of time when you have no phones, no TV on, and you each have 30 minutes to talk about what happened in your day.

Language barriers

“My boyfriend and I come from different cultural backgrounds and have different first languages. We communicate well in English, but I sometimes feel that some of the expression is lost. It doesn’t seem to frustrate him, but it really frustrates me when I feel he doesn’t understand what I mean.” Helen says: When we tell our partners about something important that’s going on in our lives, I would say 90 per cent of the time it is not about wanting to be fixed, it’s about wanting to be heard.

If you feel you are talking to your boyfriend about something really important, and he’s just not hearing it, it will feel frustrating. I would advise trying Reflected Listening, where you sit together and take turns talking. When one partner finishes talking, the other partner responds with what they think their partner said. This way you can make sure that you are totally getting what the other person is trying to get across, and that they are totally getting what you are trying to get across.

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Compulsive fixers

“I’m definitely a fixer – I do it without even realising it. When people tell me their problems, I can’t help but come back at them with a list of possible solutions. My friends and family don’t seem to mind, but it really aggravates my boyfriend. Helen says: If they wanted your help, or advice, they would ask for it. If they just want to be able to talk about it, and get some emotional support from you, let them. They probably don’t want to hear about what they should do to ease their migraines, they probably just want you to listen to how tough it is for them, to give them a big hug and to care.

When you try to fix someone, you make the other person feel diminished and patronised… it’s like saying, ‘I’m above you. I’m mothering you.’ It becomes about you doing something for them, rather than being about their experience. Just because someone wants to talk about their problem, it doesn’t mean they want you to fix it for them. Fixing is just interfering in someone else’s process. Stop interfering.

Tellers vs retreaters

“It drives me mad when there’s obviously tension between us and yet he refuses to talk.” Helen says: In most relationships, there’s one person who is the teller and there’s one who is the retreater. They often play this dance, where the more the retreater retreats, the more the teller badgers. This goes on until, eventually, the teller can’t badger anymore and so they retreat with a flourish.

This gives the retreater time and space to come out of the cave safely. If your partner is a retreater and doesn’t want to talk, say, ‘I’m willing to be patient about this. Let’s just talk.’ Later you can say, ‘I’m feeling frustrated and upset about this.’ He might still not want to talk about it, at which point you have to just leave it until he is ready.

Colluding with friends

“I tend to talk to my friends about my relationship issues. They give me a lot of support and advice, but I don’t know if it does more harm than good.” Helen says: Imagine you have a big V-shaped cup inside you, carrying all your emotions, and at the top you have anger and frustration. If you sit with your anger for a while, you’ll realise that deep down, it’s actually about hurt, fear, rejection and betrayal. Friends collude – they mean well but they help people stay stuck in the surface emotions, such as anger.

I’d be a really rubbish therapist if I sat my clients down and just told them what to do. Instead, my job is to listen and let them feel heard without colluding, and without giving an opinion. When our girlfriends have a problem, we keep going over it with them, to help them feel supported and to show them that we care.

But re-hashing it doesn’t help anyone. As soon as you receive those emotions from your friend, you are colluding and stopping her from moving forward in her own way. And as soon as you give those strong emotions to your friend, she is colluding and stopping you from moving forward. Those strong emotions are best saved to deal with and work through with your partner, otherwise you will never be able to get down to the next layer of emotions together, which are the main crux of the issue.

Stop accusing

“My husband never listens to me. He never wants to talk, or to hear about my day. He’s always watching TV, or on his Blackberry. He just doesn’t have any interest in my life.” Helen says: Women have a great tendency to talk about a problem without saying what they actually mean – or what’s actually upsetting them. When I have couples in for couples’ counsellig, the wife will often start with, ‘He’s this,he’s that.

He does this, he does that. And he doesn’t listen to anything I say,’ Then the husband says, ‘All she does is insult me and get angry at me. No matter what I do, it’s always wrong.’ In relationships, you’re often hurt. But you need to learn how to change the communication around so the language is about how you feel. When you’re communicating about a disagreement, or something you’re upset about, instead of starting with, ‘You always do this’, start with, ‘I’ve been feeling like this lately.’”

Witness each other

“I know he loves me, but sometimes I feel he doesn’t get me at all.” Helen says: In the same way children need to have their feelings, their disappointments and their achievements validated by their parents, so we need to feel validated by our partners. I always say to clients that the following three letters are so important: I C U, meaning ‘I see you’. It’s really important for all of us – children and adults – to feel like the people who love us actually see us for who we are, and see what we are going through on a daily basis.

Think about what it is that needs to happen in order for you to feel seen. I often ask clients to write me a recipe of what would make them feel loved. And then to write me the recipe of what makes their partner feel loved. Once you’ve worked out what makes your partner tick, you have a choice whether you give them that, or not. In the language of communication, it’s important to remember that what we need is not what our partners need.

Generally speaking, men need to trust, to be acknowledged, to feel appreciated and encouraged, while women need to feel cared for, understood and respected. Often women find that when they give men acknowledgement and encouragement, their partners can care, understand and respect in return.

Also, there’s a big difference between encouraging someone and reassuring them... When you’re reassuring someone, you’re giving them empty praise, like you would give a child who is scared of riding a bike. But encouraging someone means literally to give them courage – to show them that you have belief in their ability, so they can feel strong enough to go out and achieve their full potential.

3 Exercises for healthy communication

Helen Williams, counsellor and founder of LifeWorks Counselling and Development Centre, gives us her tips on how to keep the channels of communication between you and your partner, open, functioning and flowing.

1. Keep your relationship maintenance up to date
Weekly “In jobs you have appraisals. In love you don’t. Have weekly relationship feedback nights – it all comes down to two words: ‘acknowledge’ and ‘encourage’. Acknowledge the kind things your partner has done, by saying, ‘I loved it when you...’. Encourage the relationship you want by saying, ‘This week I’d really like it if we could...’. It only takes ten minutes and couples often say the changes that come from this are unbelievable.”

Monthly “Take real care to give your relationship some external maintenance by having fun – a hot date night is a great idea! Add some new energy and excitement by discovering something or somewhere new each month, which isn’t hard in Dubai.”

Annually “Holidays are an important tool for changing the way you experience each other. By removing the daily routines, fresh opportunities can arrive for deeper intimacy and connection.”

2. Practice reflective listening
Helen says, “Communication is about more than just talking and listening – it’s about really hearing the other person. Sometimes our own perceptions and views get in the way of us hearing what they are really trying to say. So, when having an important discussion with your partner, try using reflective listening.” Reflective listening means you letting your partner talk and then repeating back to them the gist of what they have just said. Often you’ll find that what they think they’ve said and what you think you’ve said is very different. This enables you to go back over a point until you both walk away having been heard properly and having your meaning understood.

3. Be in touch with yourself
“When women enter a relationship,” says Helen, “they often lose themselves in an effort to be seen and wanted. Men are always saying to me about their wives, ‘When I first met her, she was amazing. I don’t know what happened.’ What happened was she gave herself to the relationship so much she disappeared. Be in touch with yourself. Know yourself and your value systems. Hear yourself and your emotions. Find your own true north and stick to it like glue – and let your husband find his true north and help him stick to it. By supporting each other to (be yourselves/be authentic/ etc).”

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