Every intimate conversation is an adventure into a person’s inner world – their needs, passions, hardships, and unique view of the world
The problem is many of us, myself included, can be terrible travellers. We don’t listen well, don’t ask questions, and sometimes wander off on our own adventure in our head, abandoning our talking partners.
We act like tourists in a foreign land. We visit someplace new but only associate with the components most similar to the familiar world we know by staying in an “all inclusive” resort. 1
Travelling into your partner’s heart
“Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like a study.” – Paul Fussel
When couples start dating, they ask questions and intimately explore each other’s personal values, worldviews, and interests. They study each other and remember what they learned.
Danny and Sam share how they couldn’t stop talking the first three months of their relationship. “There were many nights were we just lay in bed till 3 a.m. asking each other questions like, ‘If you could have a secret talent, what would it be and why would you want that talent?’” As they describe their dating years, it’s clear this couple playfully explored each other on an intimate level.
Unfortunately, like most of us, Danny and Sam forgot to continue this as the years turned into decades. Now 22 years after first meeting, they say, “I feel disconnected from him. He never cares about my feelings,” and, “She never asks me about the things I care about. Everything that comes out of her mouth is about what I have to do around the house.”
Many couples who are disconnected have lost the art of travelling into each other’s hearts. Sometimes this is because they don’t prioritise the relationship and neglect to make time for talking and learning more about each other. Another reason is they believe they already know everything there is to know about each other.
The famous couples therapist Esther Perel reminds us that “[m]ystery is not about travelling to new places, it is about looking with new eyes.”
The truth is that your partner is constantly changing and will forever be a mystery. Psychologist Dan Gilbert states in his TED talk that “the only constant in life is change”. The problem then isn’t so much our partners, but rather our own attitudes and limited knowledge on how to explore our partner’s inner world with the same spontaneity and fun that caused us to fall in love in the first place.
Maintaining that passion requires intentionally making an effort to take time to talk and explore each other’s inner world with curiosity.
“Few dating couples would get married if they had as little focused conversation as most married couples do.” – William Doherty, Ph.D
The art of intimate listening
Below are the seven listening skills to have an emotionally intimate conversation. Consider it your passport into your partner’s inner world.
Skill 1: The Body language of intimate listening
Having an intimate conversation is having an intentional conversation. Being completely present with your partner implies total immersion in what they are sharing. This means no multitasking by checking your cell phone, watching TV, etc.
Essentially, your body language is saying, “You are the most important person in the world right now and I want to truly hear what you have to say.”
Skill 2: Enjoy the journey and truly listen
When you’re listening to your partner, you’re going to have thoughts come into your mind. You need to let them come and go like clouds in the sky. Stay with the conversation. If you ask a question about something from three minutes ago, it’s a sign you’re not truly listening.
Don’t listen just to reply. Listen to understand.
Skill 3: Immerse yourself on the journey
Demonstrate that you are listening and following the guide by using minimal encouragements, such as nodding your head and making sounds like “mmm”, “mhm”, or “uh-huh”. Doing this tells the speaker that you are listening to them and are tracking what they are sharing, thus encouraging them to share more.
Skill 4: Ask exploring questions that deepen emotional connection
You stop exploring when you ask closed-ended questions that lead to “yes” or “no” answers.
Instead, you want to ask questions that continue exploring your partner’s thoughts and feelings. Exploratory questions help your partner open up. 4
Skill 5: Reflect to clarify you understand
It’s easy to misinterpret what your partner said, or to assume what your partner feels. Reflecting is a great way to make sure you understand exactly what your partner is expressing and feeling. It also leads to greater exploration because the speaker (your guide) feels like you are next to them on their inner journey.
Skill 6: Express empathy and validate feelings
Empathy is attempting to step into your partner’s inner world and validate how they feel about something.
Empathy requires being with your partner in their feelings. This is deeply intimate. We all want to feel like our feelings are valid, even if we think they may be irrational.
Skill 7: Pausing the guide when lost
Since the guide is more familiar with their inner world than you are, it’s very easy for them to miss sharing something. If you feel confused, listen for a little longer (10 to 30 seconds) and if you’re still lost, kindly interrupt your partner and reflect what they’ve shared.
Many couples who are disconnected have lost the art of travelling into each other’s hearts
As a speaker, you have a responsibility to be a guide through your inner world in such a way that your partner can follow you.
Below are three skills to help you speak in a way that encourages your partner to listen:
Skill 1: Share your feelings and perspective
Focus on sharing your feelings and speaking from your experience.
Skill 2: Be brief
Avoid offering play-by-play enactments of your experience unless the story warrants it. Going on and on about the details for 20 minutes will lose the listener. They care less about the details and more about how the situation impacted you. So focus on your feelings and what your experiences meant to you.
Skill 3: Check in, don’t repeat
People who don’t feel understood will often repeat themselves to try to get the point across. This can come across as contemptuous and disrespectful. Rather than repeat yourself, check in with the listener.
Recognising and normalising where you are at this moment – whether an emotionally experience journeyman or novice – can help you focus on becoming good at one skill at a time, alleviating some of this self-criticism and enabling you to swiftly ascend to higher levels of emotional intelligence.
- I love this quote: “Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” – Charles Caleb Colton ↩
- As Mark Manson puts it, “ Healthy love is based on two people acknowledging and addressing their own problems with each other’s support.” ↩
- Celeste Headlee talks about this in her TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” ↩
- Open-ended questions come from therapeutic backgrounds and, to my knowledge, have been popularised by Dr. Gottman for couples to deepen their emotional connection. To learn more check out Dr. Gottman’s book What Makes Love Last? ↩