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Improving Communication: How Non-Defensive Listening Skills Can Improve Your Relationship

The Gottman Method is a research based, structured and goal-oriented method of working with couples that is scientifically based and is centered upon empirical data from Dr. Gottman’s research of more than 3,000 couples.

Dr. Gottman’s research found that couples build trust when they are able to convey concern for their partner during difficult times by acting in ways that confirms to our partner that we are there for them. Gottman developed an acronym to help with the important aspects of building trust in relationships: ATTUNE. This acronym stands for Awareness, Turning toward, Tolerance, Understanding, Non-defensive responding and Empathy. In an atmosphere of “attunement”, couples feel more securely attached and stable.   The “N” in ATTUNE emphasizes non-defensive listening.

Importance of Communication

When having an important conversation or argument with one’s partner, it is hard to not be defensive when we are told something we did was wrong. It can feel like an attack to ones character and we instantly think of ways to defend ourselves or even to point out something the other person did wrong in order to protect ourselves. Although it is easy to assume that our partner is directly attacking us when they are complaining about something we did, it is imperative to listen with an attentive, open-minded ear. Once we listen to our partner in a defensive manner, the other partner can often feel misunderstood and unheard. As opposed to listening defensively, it is helpful to listen with empathy. Listening with empathy means attempting to understand the other person’s experience and approaching a partner’s emotions with tenderness and compassion, just as we would want them to treat our own emotions.

Although it is important for the person complaining to do it in such a manner that they are not pointing fingers or blaming their partner for whatever situation has come about, it is crucial that the listener learn to self-soothe. During an argument or when listening to a complaining partner, we often feel like we are being threatened, which causes us to respond defensively.

Why Communication Can Be Difficult

When we feel overwhelmed or threatened by danger, both real or perceived, all of our systems go into overdrive and productive dialogue becomes impossible. If the conversation continues, we often find ourselves exploding or shutting down, neither of which is productive. Learning to self-soothe during these times is extremely important. Self-soothing is a way of calming the body and mind so that we do not say or do anything that we will regret. Learning to self-soothe is not an easy skill, however, with practice and effort it becomes easier. When we self-soothe, we help our prefrontal cortex to know that there is no real emergency and therefore can regain a sense of calmness.

Self-soothing activities consist of pleasant sensations and typically include gentle, slow rhythmic movements, soft tones and textures and quietness. For example, in order to self-soothe, a partner may take a “time out” and take a bubble bath and listen to soft music or go for a quiet walk outdoors. This will help the partner to return to the conversation with love and affection for the other person, ready to listen non-defensively.

Professionals suggest that relationships are more committed, stable and healthier when each person has the ability to control their emotions and self-soothe.

Other Gottman-approved techniques for non-defensive listening include:

  • Write down what your partner is saying.

While the conversation is occurring, write down what is being said. In addition to this, write down why you may be feeling defensive. This will help with understanding your defensiveness along with being able to reflect later on in case you forget. Over time, you can look at all of the times you’ve been or wanted to be defensive- you may find a pattern.

  • Focus on respect

Because difficult conversations can trigger defensiveness, it is key to always remain respectful. Once a conversation delves into disrespect and saying hurtful things, self-soothing and healthy dialogue can become almost impossible.

  • Breathe

Breathing is paramount to non-defensiveness. When you can slow down and take a deep breath, it can positively alter the conversation. Breathing can help relax your mind and prevent defensive tendencies. If your partner notices, let him or her know that you are still listening and just trying to keep your thoughts together.

  • Do not take things personally

While it is easy to think your partner is attacking your character, this is not the case most of the time. When your partner is complaining, it is typically about a specific situation. Instead of feeling as though the complaint defines your entire person, Dr. Gottman suggests to soothe yourself and instead understand why your partner is complaining and not allow it to reflect on your persona.

  • Take things slow

It is important to press the pause button and self-soothe as soon as you notice yourself becoming defensive. If you feel like you cannot control being defensive, ask to take a time out in order to collect your thoughts. Explaining it in a way such as, “I need to take 10-15 minutes to collect my thoughts. I want to be able to understand you and have a good conversation” is an effective way to stop defensive tendencies, Dr. Gottman suggests.

At GroundWork Counseling in Orlando, our couple’s therapist utilizes evidence-based treatment methods based on the Gottman approach. She helps heterosexual and same-sex couples to grow closer, rebuild trust and increase emotional intimacy.

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