Understanding your partner requires the capacity to listen. Really listen. Couples are advised to hear each other’s complaints without feeling attacked, and as great as this sounds, it’s often unrealistic.
When something you said (or didn’t say) hurts your partner’s feelings, there’s a strong impulse to interrupt with, “That wasn’t my intention. You’re misunderstanding me,” even before your partner is done talking.
Unfortunately, when the listener reacts to what the speaker is saying before the speaker gets the chance to fully explain themselves, both partners are left feeling misunderstood.
This is why the “N” in Dr. Gottman’s ATTUNE model stands for Non-defensive listening.
The defensive reaction
For most of us, listening without getting defensive is a hard skill to master. This is especially true when our partner is talking about a trigger of ours. A trigger is an issue that is sensitive to our heart—typically something from our childhood or a previous relationship.
While the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may have some truth, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that trauma and regrettable incidents can leave us with scars.
Listening without getting defensive is an essential skill that can improve communication and strengthen relationships. It involves taking the time to truly listen to how another person feels, without immediately reacting or becoming defensive. This creates space for both parties to feel heard and understood.
One key to listening non-defensively is understanding your triggers and learning to self-soothe. When you are able to regulate your own emotions, you can maintain a stable connection with your partner during difficult conversations. Additionally, practising active listening and being open-minded can help you listen without becoming defensive.
By taking the time to practice these skills and being mindful of our reactions, we can improve our ability to listen without getting defensive, leading to more effective communication and stronger relationships.