“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” (George Bernard Shaw)

The desire to be heard is deeply ingrained within us. We want to express our opinions and feelings and do so effectively, so that we are understood by our conversation partners. When people don’t feel heard and understood, they sense that their relationships are fractured, and this perception gives rise to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, or irritation, psychologist Leon Seltzer says.

In an aptly titled article, “Feeling Understood—Even More Important Than Feeling Loved?,” Seltzer examines several reasons why the feeling of being understood creates a sense of security. The fact that those around us understand us is crucial for our identity. It validates what we believe we are, gives us a sense of belonging, enhances relationship satisfaction, and empowers us to accomplish things we wouldn’t if we didn’t feel that others cared about us.

Sometimes, we may feel that no matter what we say or how we say it, the other person fails or doesn’t want to understand us. However, before jumping to this conclusion, says the psychologist, we should check if we’ve done everything within our power to make ourselves heard.

Non-aggressive communication

When our frustration reaches a level that’s hard to bear, we tend to have less control over what we say and how we say it. However, aggressive communication only decreases our chances of being listened to, breaking down the bridges to the other person.

Verbal attacks create a vicious cycle, Seltzer says. Frustration leads us to approach the other person with hostility, but they will focus more on our anger than on the content of the message, resulting in them either counterattacking or withdrawing, thus amplifying the initial frustration. The difficulty in remaining receptive when the other person expresses their point of view aggressively is a universal phenomenon, says the psychologist, explaining that aggression is an almost insurmountable obstacle to empathising with the other person’s emotions and validating their opinions. Ultimately, we will need to decide whether what we want most is to be heard or to be right.

One of the interesting paradoxes we experience in life is that relationships have the potential to be tremendously beneficial and awfully harmful to us,” says Samantha Shebibm from the University of Alabama, Birmingham campus. An expert in conflict resolution, Shebibm has focused on understanding how destructive communication can be replaced by more effective forms.

In a marriage, it’s not the frequency of arguments that predicts relationship breakdown, but rather how disagreements and tensions are approached. Conflict generates stress, and stress is not friends with our rational side, says Shebibm, emphasising the need for a break to allow our emotions to “cool down” so that we can rationally evaluate the situation.

Sometimes, people say important things, but what they say carries a strong negative emotional charge or conveys the message “I’m right and you’re wrong,” resulting in the listener failing to hear the real message, says author Erika Andersen, highlighting some simple ways to give weight to our message. Avoiding adverbs like “always” and “never” is a basic rule of expressing opinions; even though people may think using these words helps them express their point of view more strongly, in reality, they often backfire. Formulating requests also works better than listing complaints, Andersen says. While complaints make the listener defensive, requests are better received or at least activate a greater willingness to listen.

How to find and exercise your voice

“If there’s something more important for relationships than learning to talk so that you will be heard, I’m not sure what it is,” says therapist Kathryn Ford, emphasising that sometimes the hardest thing can be to make ourselves heard by the most important people in our lives.

The ability to be honest with your partner is a key indicator of a secure and healthy relationship, says psychologist Lisa Firestone, who highlights some principles of effective communication in which both partners feel seen, heard, and closer in the end.

Vulnerability is one such principle. Though it’s tough to open up when you feel wronged, vulnerability begets vulnerability. Love itself is a form of vulnerability, says researcher Brené Brown, observing that love entails emotional exposure, taking risks, and facing uncertainty. When we choose to “strip off’ our masks, to let go of the pretence that truth and righteousness are solely on our side, and to admit that we play a role, even if insignificant, in the misunderstandings created, we contribute to building a trusting relationship that can bear the burden of difficult discussions and confessions.

One of life’s greatest challenges is learning how to have difficult conversations when you feel unheard by close ones, says psychotherapist Harriet Lerner, who has written a book on maximising our chances of being heard.

Setting boundaries can be a very difficult mission when we strive to have an authentic voice in a relationship, says Lerner, emphasising that boundaries are necessary to defend our dignity, integrity, and ultimately, mental health. Taking a firm stance means knowing ourselves well and understanding what we can accept and what we deem intolerable, so setting a boundary isn’t something we do against others, but for our own well-being and ultimately, that of the relationship. Additionally, says Lerner, a boundary doesn’t mean issuing an ultimatum, a threat, an impulsive reaction spurred by a moment of tension, or an ambiguous remark. Declaring that some verbal and behavior reactions are unacceptable to us should be done with gentleness, firmness, and respect.

If you don’t have boundaries, you’ve got chaos. Boundaries create an organised structure that people can go, ‘I can live with this. I can tolerate this. I can feel peaceful and still love people,’”[1] says psychologist John Townsend.

In a romantic relationship, if we want to be heard even when we’re not saying comfortable things, we need to know how to create a warm atmosphere. Because although at the beginning of the journey we may accept constructive criticism, over time we tend to become resistant to it. The more time we spend together, the more prone we are to selective attention, Lerner says. She observes that we quickly identify unpleasant things and point them out just as quickly, but we tend to overlook the qualities and beautiful things the other person does. Therefore, it’s necessary to build a warm, relaxed emotional climate before having a sensitive discussion, thereby maximising the chances that our partner will be willing to listen to our objections.

While disputes are a natural part of a relationship and can even maintain the connection between partners, emotional reactivity is a completely different story, the psychologist says. In a highly negative emotional climate, partners behave “like two nervous systems hooked together.” Neither partner manages to stay focused on what’s important or to objectively listen to what the other has to say. Instead, both position themselves in opposing camps, with any discussion liable to trigger a chain reaction. To be able to speak frankly while still maintaining a functional relationship, it’s essential for at least one of the partners to try to defuse the atmosphere, becoming a warmer, more loving presence.

Listening, the precious gift of love

Many people take listening for granted, assuming they are good listeners even when those around them don’t confirm this assumption, therapist Ruth Stitt says. Good listeners, however, are quite rare, says Stitt, emphasising that we need willingness and even training to achieve this goal, which she considers quite challenging to attain.

There’s a close relationship between love and listening, says psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who analysed this relationship in a book, concluding that the first task of love is to give the other person our full attention.

Stitt says she has witnessed the transformation that love expressed through listening produces in marital therapy sessions. In fact, she argues that there would be no need for her to work as a therapist if people learned this simple lesson: to truly listen to each other.

Listening lies at the very heart of intimacy, so it’s worth giving it a try before lamenting that nothing we say or do changes things. As noted by pastor and professor David Augsburger, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Sign of the Times Romania and ST Network.

[1]“Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2002, p. 169.”

“Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2002, p. 169.”