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June 01, 2016

“My friend Caroline is driving me crazy,” your partner reports, exasperated. “She keeps pushing me to go shopping again, but I don’t have her endless energy for that.” Quickly, you’re poised to suggest a way she can beg off on her friend’s invitation. But before the words come out of your mouth, you notice you’re about to give advice. You notice that familiar impulse to help and solve and suggest… and you remember her telling you that she doesn’t want advice all the time — she wants simple listening. Because you noticedyour impulse, you’re able to slow down and take another path. You won’t slip into being Mr. Fixit.

“I don’t want to visit your parents this summer,” your partner announces. “We saw them twice already this year, and you know how difficult your mother can be.” You’re ready to point out that the two of you visit his parents a lot more often than your parents. But before you open your mouth, you notice your body tightening, and the feeling of irritation… familiar signs of defensiveness. Because you noticed all that, you slow down and say only “tell me more,” deferring comments until later. You’ve learned that conversations rarely go well when you become defensive.

Noticing what’s stirring within us — observing ourselves before we open our mouths — allows us to sidestep our automatic and quick reactions that can get us into trouble. Noticing is the logical brain at work, and the best way to keep the emotional brain from hijacking the moment (see Two Brains, April/May 2014).

One of the greatest gifts we can give our partner — and ourselves — is being fully present in conversations. Being fully present requires that we prevent our own thoughts and feelings from getting in the way of our best listening (see How to “Get It,” April 2015). It begins by noticing our thoughts and feelings as they stir within us (see The Mind’s Traffic, Sept/Oct 2015). Noticing gives us the power to handle our quick reactions wisely: to think about where those reactions are coming from, and to set them aside until the proper moment, at least — if we find ourselves worked up — until we’ve “cooled off.”

Learning to observe ourselves requires practice — lots of it. But when the payoff is less bickering and fewer fights, you’re sure to find the practice well worth the investment.