Most of us instinctively listen in a way that makes conflict worse, not better. We listen to respond. Think about it. Your partner is upset because you don’t help out enough with the kids on weekday mornings. You’re listening very closely, keeping tabs on what everything your partner is saying…and logging how you’ll respond. She’s totally twisting my words! Oh, that’s not how that happened at all. Come on, he knows that wasn’t what I meant. Well, I had a very good reason for doing what I did.

You’re listening in order to defend, justify, and explain yourself. 

Well of course I am! I have to make her understand where I’m coming from! 

I respectfully disagree.

You’ll get your chance, but first I want you to understand her. Why? Because one of you has to drop out of the vicious circle of this argument, and you’re the one reading this post. Also, because if you really listen to understand her, you might realize something new. You might see things differently. Your perspective might change. Are you willing for that to happen? If not, I suggest you abort the argument until you are. Because right now, you’re not trying to resolve the issue. You’re trying to be right, to win, which means you’re trying to make sure your partner is wrong and loses.

One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is, seek first to understand before seeking to be understood

Rather than listening to respond, I want you to start listening to understand. That means setting aside all of your defenses, justifications, and explanations. It means making it your job to fully understand your partner’s experience, even if it’s different from yours. And you don’t get to assume you understand. You listen until your partner feels understood. Relationship coach Jayson Gaddis uses the acronym LUFU (Listen Until they Feel Understood) to describe this practice. 

LUFU consists of three parts: reflect, empathize, and validate. I find it easiest to teach these parts as scripted sentences, so you can grab onto them even in the heat of an argument.

  1. Reflect. Right now, your job is to say back to your partner what they’re saying to you, to make sure you understand them. This is more effective than telling your partner, “I understand how you feel,” because the truth is that you don’t know that for sure, and they might still feel misunderstood. Also, when things are heated, our brains aren’t great listening instruments and it’s easy to miss a word (for instance, hearing “can” when your partner said “can’t”) that entirely changes the meaning of a sentence.
    1. “So, what I’m hearing you say is…” 
    2. “Did I get that right?”
    3. “Is there more?”
    4. “So I’m also hearing…”
    5. “Did I miss anything?”
    6. “Do you feel like I understand your experience?”
  2. Empathize. Really take a moment to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Imagine their context or lack thereof. Imagine where they’re coming from that might be different from where you’re coming from, and really live through what you’ve just imagined.
    1. “Wow, if I put myself in your shoes, I can see how I would feel that way, too.”
    2. “If you said that to me and I didn’t know that your boss had yelled at you earlier, I guess I’d also feel…”
  3. Validate. Even if your experience was different from yours, their experience makes perfect sense somehow. Figure it out, and tell them.
    1. “It makes sense that you feel the way you do.”
    2. “Your feelings are valid.”

I’ve had couples come to session and tell me that they were up fighting until 3am the night before, going round after round and getting nowhere closer to resolution. When I facilitate a do-over using this tool, we can get to the other side in less than 15 minutes. I urge you to take the lead and try this next time you’re arguing, and see where it takes you.