Good Listening is Hard Work

Poor or reactionary listening is a major issue for many couples who seek counselling.
One challenge is to see past the tone of voice or irritability of the partner
who is sharing his or her ideas or feelings. Even marriage counsellors sometimes
need to be reminded about how to do this, as shown in the following examples.

“Tone Sensitive”

It is useful to acknowledge a feeling rather that react to it.
It was getting close to dinner, so I called my daughter, Carolyn. I shouted
so that she would hear me, since she was in her room with the door closed. Maureen,
who was standing nearby, asked me if I was angry with Carolyn. I was surprised
at her question and told her that I was not. I then asked her if I had sounded
angry and she said “yes”. She then said something about my tone
of voice.

Carolyn poked her head out of her room and asked me what I wanted. I responded
by letting her know that it was dinnertime. She came out of her room, walked
up to me, looked me in the eyes and asked me if I was mad at her. I laughed
and told her I wasn’t and then asked her if I sounded like I was when
I had called her. She answered “yes”.

I thought for a few seconds and realized that I must be tired after a busy
day. I then told my daughter that this must be what I was feeling. She accepted
this explanation and we went off to dinner. I asked Carolyn jokingly if her
mother had phoned her in her room and told her to ask me if I was angry. It
seems coincidental that the two of them had listened so well!

What is happening here?
I was tired, but not aware of being so. When I called my daughter, my fatigue
affected my tone of voice. I sounded angry. Maureen handled this situation very
well in that she asked me gently if I was angry. She did not tell me not to
use “that tone” with our daughter. Had she done this I would have
asked her, “What tone?” as I had thought that I had spoken civilly.
In fact, I thought I was being helpful by calling our daughter for the evening

Maureen did not accuse me of being angry with our daughter. If she had, I would
have denied it. She knew what she had heard, though, and could have insisted
that I really was angry. This would have indeed made me feel angry and dinner
would have been forgotten!

Carolyn had sensed I was upset. Instead of challenging me, however, she walked
up to me and stood in front of me, close at hand, looked me in the eyes and
asked me if I was angry. This allowed me to take a look inside and see what
was going on. I was not feeling attacked or judged and so I was able, after
my surprise at her question, (hence the laughter), to tell her that I was not
angry. It was also possible for me to then acknowledge that I was tired. Up
to this point I was not aware that I was indeed tired.

Try this:
Guess at the feeling behind the tone of voice.

“Mr. Cranky”
Sometimes it is hard to not get upset by the words of another person. A third
party, listening to the conversation, may be able to hear a feeling behind the
words and tone and give constructive feedback.

It had been a long day. We had just finished an eleven hour road trip and I
had done all the driving.

I was sitting in the kitchen having a snack when my youngest daughter, Joanna,
came in and asked me several questions in rapid succession. I turned to her
and told her to “stop nattering at me”. I said these words quickly and with evident
irritation in my voice. Immediately I noticed by the look on her face that I had hurt
her by saying what I did.

Maureen was standing nearby, observing my interaction with Joanna. I looked
at her and she was silent. I knew I had blown it and I was impressed that she
did not call me on it. She could easily have made a face or told me to not talk
to our daughter as I did. Instead she paused, looked at Jo and said “I
think that maybe Dad is tired after our long trip.”

I immediately commented on this to Jo. I confirmed that indeed I was feeling
very tired and yet this fatigue was no excuse for barking at her and I apologized.
The look of hurt passed from Jo’s face almost immediately and she went
on with what she was asking me as I invited her now to do.

What is happening here?
I was tired and, when interrupted, I snapped at my daughter. I could see her
hurt and was going to comment on it when Maureen offered her thoughts. Maureen
impressed me yet again by the way she handled this situation. She had heard
my words and could see Joanna’s hurt. Jo, on her part, had heard my cranky
words and felt attacked. She was so caught up in her surprise and hurt that
it did not occur to her that I was tired. Her mother’s comments put things
in perspective and this helped Jo to not feel attacked.

I, on the other hand, was going to say something but was upset with myself
for hurting my daughter. I knew I was out of line and when Maureen offered her
thoughts it made it easier for me to apologize and clarify what was happening
for me.

Try this:
Acknowledge the feeling behind the tone of voice.


Good Listening is Hard Work
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Denis works with couples and individuals. His areas of interest include marriage, grief and stress. He also counsels people who suffer from depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as those struggling with personal growth issues.

Denis is eclectic in his use of psychological approaches, which include Adlerian, cognitive/behavioural, systems, psychodynamic, brief solution focused, existential and emotionally focused therapies.

Denis is a popular speaker who presents talks and workshops on a variety of topics including marriage, grief, retirement, emotional maturity and family relationships. He has published a book titled, “Marriage Can Be Great!…no really.”

Denis was a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. He helped to start the first hospice program in B.C. in 1975.

Denis received his Master of Arts degree from the University of British Columbia in 1977 and works as a Registered Psychologist. He is a member of the B.C. College of Psychologists and the B.C. Psychological Association.

Most importantly Denis has been married to Maureen for over thirty years and they have four children.

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