Your Third Ear l July 2015

You’re at a party. Alcohol is flowing. After a half-hour chatting with others, you spot your partner across the room and meander over. Almost instantly, she complains that you’ve abandoned her. Her tone is surprisingly harsh. Do you hear the likely sound of alcohol influencing what she’s saying, and making it impossible — you know this from experience — to have a productive conversation?

You’re fixing dinner when your partner comes home. Immediately you sense his tenseness. Your greeting receives a short, curt reply. He asks if you’ve brought in the mail, then quickly turns away. Do you hear the likely sound of a rough day, or maybe bad commute traffic, coloring his words and tone?

The two of you are debating a decision that needs resolution by the end of the week. The conversation has deteriorated; you’re both frustrated and tired. Your partner erupts with hurtful words of criticism and anger. Do you hear the sound of her emotional brain hijacking her logical brain? (see Two Brains)

We all have a Third Ear, but we don’t always use it. The Third Ear hears beyond the surface words to a spouse’s underlying mood or emotions. With our Third Ear we’re like an audience listening while staying in our seats, never climbing onto the stage to join the drama. While hearing something potentially button-pushing, the Third Ear’s signal reminds us to refrain from taking the bait … and to aim for Being Smart instead of Being Right (see Right Versus Smart).

Here’s what listening with the Third Ear might lead us to say in the examples above:

  1. Let’s talk about this in the morning. For now, I’ll stay by your side.
  2. Do I detect difficult feelings right now? Talk to me, tell me what’s going on.
  3. We’re both worked up right now. Let’s take a break and continue the conversation after we’ve calmed down.

To listen with our Third Ear, we need to control our own emotional reactivity, our tendency to get quickly hooked by our partner’s words or tone. That can only be done by moving slowly, as it takes the Third Ear — compared to our customary hearing — a bit more time to “hear” what’s going on. In the next Couples Tip of the Month, we’ll tackle the question of how to slow ourselves down.

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Unleash Vitality l May/June 2015

Is the relationship too flat and lifeless, lacking vitality? Maybe you’re not telling the truth often enough.

Most of us hate to make waves; we strive to avoid conflict, even mild friction. In our determination to keep tension to a minimum, we step away from being honest when we suspect that honesty might agitate otherwise calm waters. Here are some ways we step away from honesty:

  • Instead of talking about something troubling us, we avoid it.
  • Instead of addressing something our spouse brings to our attention, we maneuver away from the main point.
  • We conveniently omit information that would be relevant or of interest to our spouse.
  • We focus on a lesser part of an issue instead of the more serious (and difficult) part.
  • We cut short conversations by allowing our defensiveness, or our display of anger, to distract from the real issue.
  • We deliver the silent treatment to avoid dealing with something.

Even when we’re not the partner perpetrating avoidance, we may be an accomplice. When we knowingly go along with the aforementioned tactics — allowing ourselves to be distracted from the main point, ignoring our radar’s signals that something doesn’t quite feel right, failing to return to an issue after the hijacking by anger or upset — we become an accomplice to the dishonesty.

Assess the measure of honesty in your relationship. If you and your partner often step away from truth telling, ask yourselves:

  • Why aren’t we more open and honest with one another?
  • What are we afraid will happen if we were?
  • What price does our relationship pay by being less than honest?

Often the price is a kind of relationship apathy or boredom. That’s because, as all couples know, truth telling can make waves. One of us may hear something unexpected and unsettling, triggering debate or distress and sometimes frightening levels of emotion … perhaps even challenging our sense of relationship security. But making waves — when respectfuli partners spar with one another respectfully — infuses energy and aliveness. Delivering honesty can unleash the vitality that over time gets lost if we customarily settle for the calm of too-still waters.


i When lively discussion and debate typically lead to hurtful encounters, making waves may be ill-advised. Instead, review our Couples Tip archives for its communication suggestions, or seek professional counseling to develop the skills that will strengthen your partnership.

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How to 'Get it' l April 2015

Ask your partner if you’re a good listener. For most of us, it’s often hard to accurately grasp the main idea, particularly during a difficult conversation. And it’s harder still when we’re pseudo-listening:

  • Preparing what we’re going to say so we’re ready as soon as our partner takes a breath.
  • Comparing ourselves to the speaker. “Listen to that! He doesn’t do half as much in a day as I do, and again he’s saying he’s too tired to load the dishwasher.”
  • Identifying with what we hear and drifting off into thoughts and memories about ourselves.
  • Mind reading what’s really behind the words. “He thinks I’m a bore.” “She’s tired of our date nights.” “He’s angling to get me to agree to something.”
  • Advising others with our unsolicited solutions to their troubles.
  • Filtering out what we don’t want to hear while listening for words that fit our own agenda. “She doesn’t sound angry with me … now I can go back to thinking about the baseball game.”
  • Challenging what we hear by getting defensive, and not listening much beyond that point.
  • Humoring the speaker with words of agreement just to be nice or be liked. “Right … yes of course … absolutely …”
  • Half-listening because we’re bored and don’t know it’s okay to gently say, “I’m drifting” or “I’m too tired to give this my full attention.”

How do you know you’re really hearing your partner’s main idea, especially when the conversation goes beyond simple chit-chat or meanders into emotion-triggering territory? Don’t leave accurate listening to chance. Before responding to what you hear, before taking your turn, say: “What I hear you saying right now is … Am I right?” If your partner says you didn’t “get it,” ask to hear it once more. Then try again: “What I hear you saying is … Did I get it?” Keep going back and forth until you “get it.”

Alternatively, if you’ve just spoken and delivered an important mouthful, pause and say to your partner, “What’s the main idea you just heard?” If your partner didn’t “get it,” review it again.

Good communication takes effort. Start by catching yourself in the act of pseudo-listening, and redirecting your focus to the message being conveyed. Then check what you think you heard for accuracy. Too many debates, disputes and damaging arguments occur when partners, without realizing it, just aren’t on the same page.

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