Are you a Listener or a Fixer

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Like most couples I work with, Frank and Lisa wanted my help with their communication.  During their first session, I asked both to share their intention for couples counseling. 

Lisa began by sharing that they keep repeating the same pattern over and over again and they need to figure out how to get out of this loop.  “All I want is for Frank to listen to me when I talk.  Instead, he keeps trying to tell me what to do, and what not to do.  It’s gotten to the point that I don’t even bring things up to him anymore.”

Frank doesn’t wait for me to ask his intention and instead jumps in right in.  “What you need to do is listen to me.  I have a lot of good ideas. I don’t know why you’re not open to my suggestions.”

Lisa rolls her eyes and leans forward.  “Do you hear what you’re doing?  This isn’t about you, Frank. You always make it about you.  When do I get a turn?”

Lisa looks at me. “See what I mean?”

Frank throws his hands up and leans back into his chair.  “It’s never good enough for you is it Lisa?  You know everything and I know nothing.”

I ask Lisa to tell Frank what she wants from him when she talks with him.

Lisa doesn’t need any time to think of her response.  “I need and want you to just listen.  All you want to do is fix.  I’m not asking for any fixing.  I’m pretty good at doing that myself. Why’s it so hard to just listen to me?”

Frank responds.  “I just want to help.  I wish I could fix what’s going on with you and I can’t.  It’s hard to sit there and not say anything.  I feel I’m not doing enough.  Don’t you want my help?”

I model three different ways to get the conversation going in a positive direction.

I turn my attention to Lisa.  “I want you to raise your hand when you feel I’m listening to you.”

“Lisa, it sounds like you’re frustrated.  I’m here for you.  How can I be helpful right now?”

Lisa raises her hand.

“Lisa, it makes sense you’re not feeling listened to because I flip the conversation onto how I’m feeling rather than staying focused on what’s going on with you.”

Lisa raises her hand again.

“Lisa, I’m feeling helpless over what’s going on with you.  That’s a difficult feeling for me to have because I care so much about you and I wish I could do something to make it easier for you.  Let me know if you need anything from me while you deal with what’s going on.”

This time Lisa raises both her hands. 

“Frank, what’s different about how I responded to Lisa’s earlier comment?”

Frank shares what he observed. “You didn’t try to solve Lisa’s problems.  You showed why she didn’t feel listened to.  Right?”

I ask Lisa if she wants to add anything that Frank missed. 

“Yes, and Michael listened to my feelings.  He didn’t tell me what to do or how to do it.  He let me know he was there for me and asked me to let him know how he could support me.”

I ask Frank to find out how Lisa felt hearing the different ways I listened.

Lisa didn’t wait for Frank to inquire.  “I felt listened to.  I felt cared for.  I felt like I was important.”

I’m big on assignments.  So this is what I asked Frank and Lisa to practice for the next week until we met again.   

At different times during each day, Lisa will consciously bring up to Frank a problem she is having, a decision she has to make or a concern she has.  When she does this, Frank will first ask her if there’s anything she needs from him.  Then Frank will give Lisa what she is asking for.

I gave Lisa some specific behaviors she could ask for including:

  • Understanding
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Suggestions
  • Problem solving
  • Nurturing as in a hug or
  • Feedback to help her identify blind spots

When we met the following week both Frank and Lisa shared that they had a better week. Some of the time, Frank still fell into his old pattern wanting to immediately help Lisa with an issue.  However, as soon as Lisa pointed this out to Frank, he quickly backtracked and asked her how he could be supportive. 

Notice when you and your partner are stuck in a pattern that leaves you both feeling disconnected.  When this happens, try being open to learning with your partner and asking one simple question, “How would you like me to support you right now?”  You’ll find being a listener rather than a fixer will keep you in a more fulfilling, satisfying and joyful loop with your partner.

Couples Counseling Can Help You Feel Heard and Understood

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