Listening for Better Relationships

One night, I got into a fight on the phone and then over text message with my mother-in-law, whom I dearly love and respect. In her tone, I felt her say to me that I was a bad mother. In her texts, I heard her say that I did not care about my children. I was crushed. My blood boiled. I sobbed. The next day, I was a puddle. When something is off in a relationship, I am a mess.

At about 2:30 in the afternoon the next day, I called her, even though in her text message she had said “no, thank you” to us talking again. When I called, she did not even remember the previous night’s conversation! She had taken a sleeping aid the night before and barely remembered us being on the phone. She did not remember texting at all. While on the phone with me, she pulled up her text messages to read through them.

What I had heard her say was completely in my head.

Whether we realize it or not, we all attribute additional meaning to the words that we hear. It’s like we have water in our ears and the water distorts our perception of what we hear.

I was listening through a filter of my own feelings. It was not my mother-in-law’s words that hurt me but all of the meaning that I was attributing to her words.

My 18-month-old had been sick for three weeks straight. It started with a head cold that turned into an 8-day stomach bug that morphed into some other fever and mucus-inducing mess. All of that sickness was exacerbating the nighttime cough that had been keeping her up for three months straight!

I was tired, worried, and feeling totally inadequate as a mother because I did not know how to fix her. I was feeling disappointed about missing our family ski trip and feeling guilty because I was disappointed.  Though I wanted my husband and son to go without us girls, I was jealous that they might go. I was mad at myself for being jealous. On top of it all, I was scared for my little girl! I heard my mother-in-law say, “You are not a good mother,” because I was feeling inadequate as a mother.

That was the water in my ears!

If you stop for a moment to think about it, it is not usually the words that someone says that offends, hurts, or angers you. It is the meaning that you attribute to those words.

You probably have not had someone say these actual words to you:

  • I don’t love you.
  • You’re an idiot!
  • You’re not going to get this.
  • You are always screwing things up.
  • I don’t want to hang out with you.

But if you have human and not alien DNA, you have probably “heard” someone say one of those things to you. They really did not say those words. You attributed that meaning to what they said because you were listening to their words through a filter.

If you have ever been angered, hurt, or offended by someone’s words, please listen to this advice:

  1. Just knowing that you are listening through a filter is the first step to no longer being crushed by other people’s communication.
  2. The second step is that you have to realize what filter you are listening through. Ask yourself: “What are my insecurities? What am I afraid of? What am I feeling? Am I tired, lonely, or vulnerable in some other way?”
  3. Next, you have to be willing to try out a different meaning to the words that were said. There is what you thought the communicator meant. But could there be any other possible intention to their words? What else could they be trying to say?
  4. Finally, you have to separate what people say from you. Even if someone did say something negative about you, that does not mean that is who you are. That is just them experiencing the world through their own unique filter. We all have one.

Communication is not the sole responsibility of the speaker. It is the listener’s responsibility to use discernment in decoding what meaning we should take from someone’s words. If you practice these steps, you will have healthier conversations. Healthier conversations lead to better relationships.

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