03/14/2012 11:41 am ET Updated May 13, 2012

Overcoming Your Listening Disorder

How you talk and listen defines how your marriage goes and whether or not your partner is happy to see you at the end of the day. It comes as no surprise that most of us are more motivated to improve our talking skills than to attend to the other half of the conversational equation. But listening well is the ultimate spiritual act and the greatest gift that you can give to your partner.

If our partner is saying something we don't want to hear, it takes courage to listen with an open heart, to give our full attention, and to not back away from asking, "Is there more you haven't told me?" To listen with full emotional presence, and with the single goal of understanding your partner's pain, anger, or unhappiness is a spiritual exercise, in the truest sense of the word.

Marriage is a good place to practice being a caring listener and a skilled questioner. The longer you're together, the more you may observe that you're a better listener with your dry cleaner than you are with your mate. This isn't necessarily a problem because the nice thing about a solid marriage is that two people can make do with giving each other their distracted and partial attention much of the time and still have a good relationship. But when the subject is important, and your partner really needs you, you need to shift out of a distracted or defensive mode and bring a different quality of emotional presence to the table.

We naturally become defensive when our spouse begins to criticize us. We listen to refute or correct the inaccuracies, distortions and exaggerations that are inevitably there. The challenge is to listen only to understand. Sometimes we need to decide in advance that we will try to listen differently -- that all we will do in one particular conversation is listen and ask questions that will allow us to understand where the other person is coming from. We can save our defense for a future conversation.

So, here's the key to overcoming your L.D.D. (Listening Deficit Disorder) which creeps into even the best of marriages: When you enter a difficult conversation (and why not invite one?), think in terms of having two conversations.

In the first conversation you will only listen, which means more than just sitting there making empathic grunts. True listening requires you to quiet your mind, slow down your breathing, open your heart, and ask questions to better understand what your partner is saying. It also requires that you refrain from interrupting, advice-giving, correcting facts, defending yourself, making your case, or saying things that leave your partner feeling unheard or cut short. In conversation one, practice just listening.

You can bring up conversation two in the next 48 hours. After you've truly listened and considered your partner's point of view, you need to tell her or him how you see things differently. You might say, "I thought about our conversation and I'm really sorry I ignored you at the party. But I don't agree that I made you drink too much. I take responsibility for my own behavior, but not for yours." Even if your partner isn't able to consider your point of view, you need to hear the sound of your own voice saying what you really think. And leaving room for two different realities, without trying to change, fix, or convince your partner, is at the heart of a good marriage.

The two-step sounds simple in theory. Tell yourself, "In this conversation, I will only listen and try to understand. I can share my differences in the next conversation." But practicing non-defensive listening -- even once in a while -- is anything but easy. I promise you that it's worth the effort. Intimacy with your partner will rise or fall in direct proportion to your capacity to listen well.