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Are You Hearing Everything But Each Other?

Couple with headphones

Is technology helping couples and families hear everything but each other?

by Seth Eisenberg

Is technology helping couples and families hear everything but each other?

Confiding is the lifeblood of intimacy, yet today’s increasingly ubiquitous tools for communication encourage couples and families to hear and see events around the world, often at the price of connecting with each other.

Few gifts are more important than listening to another person with empathy, especially during times of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.

How often do you really listen to another person; not just to their words, waiting for a chance to insert your own thoughts, experiences, advice, and perspective, but to the meaning and intention beneath the words?

Listening with empathy begins with taking off the headphones, putting away the smart phones, and disconnecting from technology, at least momentarily, to hear another person. That also means letting go of the temptation to interject, judge and give advice that isn’t invited. In fact, talking instead of listening can quickly keep others from confiding.

Leading marriage education programs teach an exercise called Emptying the Emotional Jug to help couples and families strengthen their ability to confide.

The exercise begins with separating yourself from distractions and agreeing that the Listener will simply listen with empathy, promising not to judge, comment, or react to anything the Speaker shares beyond showing empathy and validation for the experience of the Speaker. The Speaker shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to attack or blame the Listener.

Ideally, when this exercise is done in person, the Speaker and Listener should sit facing each other where they can have natural eye, knee and hand contact. It’s best to do this privately so that neither the Speaker nor Listener is influenced by other people during the exercise.

The exercise has a beginning and an end. Once begun, it’s important to complete all the steps. Generally, this takes 15 to 30 minutes, although it can be shorter or longer, especially when there are a lot of feelings stuffed inside that someone hasn’t had a chance to say aloud.

Father and son confiding

When parents listen with empathy, children are more likely to talk about their feelings.

Emptying the Emotional Jug can also help parents make it safe for their children to confide feelings. When an adult is doing the exercise with a child, the adult should always be the Listener.

The Listener starts by asking the Speaker:

“What are you MAD or ANGRY about?”

This is an invitation for the Speaker to search inside their gut to feel what’s there that’s connected to feelings of ANGER and to express those feelings in words. It’s not a speech, lecture or conversation, but a chance to become aware of feelings and express them in words.

After the Speaker has spoken, the Listener says, “Thank you. What else are you MAD about?” The Speaker continues to search inside and say whatever is there.

Again, after the Speaker speaks, the Listener continues to express appreciation to the Speaker for confiding and asks, “What else are you MAD about?”

“Thank you. What else are you MAD about?” [Depending on time constraints and the depth of confiding, the Listener can continue to ask or can move on to the next step.]

When the Speaker indicates they’ve said everything they’re MAD about [or you’ve used about a quarter of the time you’ve agreed upon], the Listener says, “Thank you. If you were MAD about anything else, what would it be?”

This step is very important, as the deepest feelings sometimes come out last as the Speaker makes sure it’s really safe to confide without fear of judgment, embarrassment, or unwanted advice.

Again, the Listen expresses appreciation, “Thank you,” and then asks:

“What are you SAD about?”

After the Speaker answers, the Listener says, “Thank you. What else are you SAD about?”

The Speaker continues to search inside and say whatever is there.

Again, after the Speaker shares, the Listener continues to express appreciation to the Speaker for confiding (by saying “thank you” or with a hug) and asks, “What else are you sad about?”

When the Speaker indicates they’ve said everything they’re SAD about (or everything they feel safe/comfortable expressing at the time), the Listener says, “Thank you. If you were SAD about anything else, what would it be?”

Again, the Listen expresses appreciation, “Thank you,” and then asks:

“What are you SCARED or WORRIED about?”

After the Speaker talks, the Listener says, “Thank you. What else are you SCARED about?”

The Speaker continues to search inside and say whatever is there.

Again, after the Speaker talks, the Listener continues to express appreciation to the Speaker for confiding and asks what else?

“Thank you. What else are you SCARED about?”

When the Speaker indicates they’ve expressed everything they’re SCARED about, the Listener says, “Thank you. If you were SCARED about anything else, what would it be?”

Again, the Listen expresses appreciation, “Thank you,” and then asks,

“What are you GLAD about?”

After the Speaker talks, the Listener says, “Thank you. What else are you GLAD about?”

The Speaker continues to search inside and put whatever they find into words.

Again, after the Speaker talks, the Listener continues to express appreciation to the Speaker for confiding and asks what else?

“Thank you. What else are you GLAD about?”

When the Speaker indicates they’ve sufficiently expressed what they’re GLAD about, the Listener says,

“Thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to share that you’re GLAD about?”

Conclude with a hug or other sign of appreciation and affection, both for the gift the Speaker offered through their trust in confiding and the gift of listening with empathy.

If the Speaker wants to have a further conversation after the exercise about anything said, respect the Speaker’s right to make that decision. If not, respect the privacy of the Speaker’s shared experiences and right not to talk about it further. As people learn through experiences that it’s safe to confide their feelings, you’ll discover a new depth of connection, compassion and understanding.

Seth Eisenberg is President/CEO of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation in Weston, Florida, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.

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