Perhaps the most important ingredient for a harmonious relationship is active listening. However, some of us are prone to a reflex of “fixing it”– that is, when our partner is upset, we move into fix-it mode instead of simply listening.
Frequently the best way to fix a problem is by listening to your partner and relaying that you’re doing so.
An example: Rachel, Mike’s wife, came back from work and was upset that her boss was being mean again. Mike went into fix-it mode and promptly said, “Why don’t you set up an appointment with HR and tell them how mean your boss is…?”
Chances are, Mike’s response would not result in Rachel saying, “Thanks so much honey. I never thought of that! I’m so glad I talked to you about this…” This is because when he jumps into fix-it mode like this, she doesn’t feel heard. Mike didn’t validate her upset, which is to say he didn’t acknowledge what she was feeling.
In fact, what he’s really conveying is that he’s not interested in how she’s feeling. He wants to fix the problem in order to not feel her emotions.
If Mike really wanted her to start feeling better, he could provide it by simply listening and relaying that to her. A good start might be, “I’m sorry that your boss is being mean again. I know how painful it is for you at work when this happens.” This conveys that he is listening, that he sees her, and he understands her emotional state and it’s not too much for him. This is another way of expressing that she is not too much for him.
When the upset party (Rachel) is seen and validated this way, she can begin to calm down.
This is because Rachel and Mike have connected. In the first example, of Mike’s fix it reflex, it was actually a form of dismissal, which is the opposite of connecting.
The same is true if they are both upset about the same issue. Someone has to listen in order to bring them back into harmony.
To illustrate, say I go to the doctor and tell them my back hurts. Then my doctor promptly says, “Oh, your back hurts? Well, my back hurts too, and so does my neck!” My initial reaction is, “Doc, I don’t care about your back and neck right now, because I came to you in pain.”
The same is true in our relationships when we are distressed. If Rachel and Mike are both upset, someone has to be a real doctor and tend to their partner by listening.
If Mike goes to Rachel upset and hears only a litany of her issues, their collective pain and distress will only continue because no one is listening.
Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with trying to offer solutions or commiserating in pain. There is a time for both, but they can only occur when the speaker has felt seen and heard and has regained their calm. Then they may be open to a solution. But the first and best way to fix the situation when one person is upset, or when you both are, is to listen and then convey that you have listened.