Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

Increasing Trust and Closeness

We have learned from research that relationships with high levels of trust and feelings of closeness have a common characteristic. This pattern is highly predictable of positive relationships.

Good relationships work because there are a number of qualities that together create a positive direction in the relationship, so it isn’t just one thing. In healthy relationships partners pay attention to each other and make efforts to stay connected and deal with conflict. The skill I’m referring to is much less obvious, core to creating other positive traits, and really easy to miss.

In the Gottman Couples Weekend Workshop that I co-facilitate with Certified Gottman Therapist Lisa, Lund, LMFT, we cover this skill set. For some partners it is a hard sell, you may feel the same because this skill seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people.

Intimacy is Based on What You Don’t Do

It is easy to assume that good relationship skills are complicated, that it takes a lot of work and effort to be successful. It turns out that one of the most effective skills in strengthening relationships isn’t what partners do, it is what they don’t do. They don’t give advice. Yes, that is the skill, learning to support your partner without giving advice and suggesting what the partner should do.

It boils down to what happens when a partner shares something, especially something that is important emotionally. What should the loving and caring listener say when their partner shares something with them? Nothing at first. Listen and wait for your partner to give you the steps to be successful. Don’t start with advice unless your partner asks for advice specifically. silence really is golden

The Power of Listening

Many people report how difficult it is to sit with their own emotions, much less their partners emotions. So when our partner expresses worry, grief, or anger we tend to respond with our wonderful words of wisdom; solutions, answers, defensiveness and so on. We are surprised when our partner becomes angry with us for sharing our thoughtful and sometimes even brilliant insights, “Hey, what is wrong with you, I’m just trying to help here!”

Problem-solvers often have a hard time just listening. Empathetic partners may tend to take on their partner’s problems. Neither response is effective in communicating support. You may ask, “OK, what works better?”

Ask Questions

I learned through my own research that couples with long-term recovery who were happy in their relationships simply listened, or as one research participant said, “I want to be a witness to my partner’s emotions”. By this she meant a silent witness who remained present and attentive, and who provided emotional support for her partner through the silence and questions to better understand her partner’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns. She didn’t need to fix things or to take them on as her problems, this approach fostered intimacy and closeness in a powerful and predictable way.

It’s not a coincidence that the very first skill therapists in training take in counselor school is listening, however, you certainly don’t need to be a therapist to be an effective listener; It only takes 4 steps:

  • Don’t talk (this may be harder than you think)
  • Use non-verbal communication that indicates you are listening (head nods, eye contact, “um, hmm”)
  • Ask questions and withhold your opinion unless asked (why questions are not as effective as who, what, where, when, how)
  • Actually remember what you partner says (pay attention)

That’s it, so unless our partner is asking for more, try defaulting to this approach and see what happens.

I would love to have you share any thoughts about this article in the comments section below.

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