Sean was always a quiet guy, and that was one of the things about him that Nicole found irresistibly attractive. But after they’d been together for a while, she wanted more from him. Often during a silence, Nicole would ask him what he was thinking. He never gave her an answer.
Then she began begging him to talk to her. He was hesitant at first, but at her encouragement, he began to open up. He offered up two or three sentences, and Nicole got excited about getting closer. In her enthusiasm, she’d try to get more information from him. Then all of a sudden — at least it seemed to be sudden — Sean quit sharing. He was more withdrawn than ever, and Nicole was really confused. She kept asking him what was wrong, and he kept refusing to talk about it. He’d just shrug his shoulders and mumble, “Nothing’s wrong.”
Sean had a very different experience of their relationship. He really liked Nicole. When they first met he loved her energy — and her chatter. She was always ready to fill the silence, so he didn’t have to worry about what to say.
After they’d been together for a while, he wanted to tell her more about himself, but felt he could hardly get a word in edgewise. Nicole kept telling him she wanted to know what he was thinking, but it didn’t seem like that to Sean. As soon as he would get a word out, Nicole would begin her critique. Nothing he said was right. It seemed like everything he said set her off in one way or another. So he gave up. He began dreading their time together and started thinking about breaking off the relationship.
Fortunately, Nicole was studying the dynamics of interpersonal communication in one of her classes at the university and came across this statement from Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication. (p. 237)
Nicole realized that she — like most people — wasn’t listening with the “intent to understand,” but had been listening with the “intent to reply.” She hadn’t been trying to gain a deeper understanding of him. She filtered everything he said through her own experience, reading her autobiography into his life. As soon as Sean had started talking, she had already begun formulating a response. She hadn’t given him space to be in the relationship. She didn’t understand him because she wasn’t listening. She had been way too busy formulating her reply.
What did Nicole do to become a more inviting listener and encourage Sean to share more instead of less?