Three Easy Steps to Listening to An Angry Partner

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA left a successful career as a lawyer to become a peacemaker. He is an award-winning author, teacher, trainer, highly experienced mediator, and co-founder of the Prison of Peace project. This has been the most profound peace training Douglas has conducted thus far in his career. Inmates who have gone through his program have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. To learn more about Douglas visit him at DouglasNoll.com.

Dump HimThe art of relationship is learning to be present for your partner when he or she is angry or upset. This is done by ignoring your partner’s words. They mean nothing in a moment of upset or anger.

Instead, give your full attention to your partner’s emotions and feelings. What is he or she experiencing in this moment? Then reflect back those feelings with a simple “You” statement.

Consider this typical conversation:

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  • “You never listen to me.”
  • “What do you mean? I listen to you all of the time.”
  • “See, you are not listening to me.”
  • “What? Are you crazy? I just said I listen to you all the time. What else do you want me to do?

This couple is already off the tracks headed towards a fight. Why? Because the listener paid attention to the words, not the feelings. The speaker is feeling disrespected and annoyance is morphing into anger. As long as you pay attention to the words, your partner will never feel heard. Frustration will escalate to anger very quickly.

Try this instead:

  • “You never listen to me.”
  • “Oh love, you don’t feel heard and you are anxious.”
  • “No, I’m not anxious. I just feel like you don’t care.”
  • “You feel a little lonely and sad, like you are sometimes abandoned.”
  • “Yeah.”

At first, this seems strange. What are you doing telling your partner what he or she is feeling? Aren’t you stating the obvious?

The answer is no. Many times, partners become upset and don’t even know why. They can’t express what they are feeling because they don’t know themselves what they are feeling (a condition known as alexithymia). When you label and reflect back what you believe they are feeling, you are actually lending them your pre-frontal cortex for a moment. Brain scans show that when we label the emotions of another, the speaker’s emotional centers calm down almost instantly.

There are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

First, do not use “I” statements, such as “What I think you are feeling is….” “I” statements make the reflection about you, not your speaker. You must listen from your partner’s frame of reference, not your own frame of reference.

Second, do not ask questions such as “Are you angry?” or “You are angry?” with a rising inflection. Asking questions will cause your partner to reply back in sarcasm or anger. “Of course I am angry, you idiot. Can’t you tell?”

The formula is simple:

  • Ignore the words.
  • Guess at the feelings and emotions.
  • State back your partner’s feelings and emotions using simple “You” statements.

I have taught these skills to thousands of people, including inmates serving life sentences in prison. To a person, everyone reports incredible changes in their relationships. The ideas are counter-intuitive because we are raised to believe that words convey the most meaning. The fact is that emotions carry far more meaning than the spoken word. When we pay attention to our partner’s feeling and emotions and reflect them back, our partner experiences a profound sense of relief.

Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Start with small reflections in mild moments. As you gain confidence and skill, try it when the intensity ratchets up a notch. Keep your voice conversational and don’t make a big deal out of the reflection. See how subtle you can be.

If your partner pushes back by saying something like “Don’t use that psycho-babble stuff on me,” back off and try again later. You were a little too obvious in what you were trying. The listening to emotions has to come across naturally and effortlessly.

With a little practice, you will find that reflecting back feelings and emotions will stop fights and arguments dead in their tracks. Your partner will feel heard. You will feel empowered in a new and transformational way.

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