This video passed by on my Facebook timeline and I was instantly smitten. Not only did it resonate with my deep desire for self-expression, but I am also experiencing in my own life how the connection with your life partner can improve when he can really, deeply listen to you. So I agree wholeheartedly. Yes, I think you do have a point there Diego!
Empathy from my husband
For years this had been a source of great conflict between me and my husband. I felt he did not really listen to me and the more I would say that, the more he shut down. Until I met Nonviolent Communication. It took me some years and lots of training before I felt practiced and safe enough to try out some of my new skills on my husband. But when I had the courage to try and connect from a place of vulnerability, I would notice that I instantly felt more connected to him. This did not happen often though, because through the years I had gathered lots of ‘evidence’ that communication between us was simply impossible. So it took some effort on my part. I needed to make sure I had triple giraffe ears on and there was lots of me pulling the jackal by the ears. I found that challenging and tiring to do, and often felt it was unfair. Why should I always be the perfect giraffe in order for us to be able to communicate? In short, I really longed for more reciprocity, a shared reality, being met in my vulnerability.
Why should I be the only one that puts in the effort in order to save our relationship?!
But then, when we were faced with a very stressful situation that was negatively impacting our family (and other homeschooling families in Rotterdam), we realized that we had to pull together as a family more than ever. I made my request and to my surprise, Pepijn agreed to regularly practice empathy for our emotional hygiene and to support each other through the ordeal.
Empathy practice for partners
We agreed to a daily half our of empathy time. To make it as easy as possible to stick to this daily routine, we decided to keep to a short and tightly scheduled moment of connection. 10 minutes of silent empathy each and 5 minutes for reactions. We really wanted to keep the threshold as low as possible, and we did not want it to feel like an obligation. Meaning that if there were more pressing priorities, it was OK to cancel the date. And to ensure we did not go overtime and start to build resentment (if you’ve been in those long winded business meetings with talkative people that always go overtime, you know what I mean) we used an egg timer to keep track of time.
The children quickly adapted to this routine, they soon learned that we really did not want to be disturbed during this half hour and when they trusted that we would get back to them after a short while and knew it would not take too long, they gave us our space willingly. This daily routine immediately brought back the sense of togetherness that we had lost a bit with all the stress and overwhelm, but after about a month of doing this I also got some concrete counter ‘evidence’ of the grown trust and loving connection between us.
Getting through the rough patches with the help of an egg timer.
The greatest gift from my partner
I had an enormous trigger, that took me completely by surprise. I had not even noticed that I had been losing connection with myself. It was not until I became a big jackal to my eldest son that I realised I was in pain. And now I was also feeling shame and regret about how I had reacted, so as soon as we were all in the car to drive home I reached out for empathy. I had tried several people and everybody was busy or not answering. I did not even think to call my husband, I was so used to finding the support and empathy I need in daily life elsewhere. But then I called home anyway about a practical thing and before I knew it, I heard myself asking Pepijn if he was busy or we could do our daily check-in now (we usually skip it when one of us is home late).
He was available. And had had a good day so I was welcome to use his ten minutes too if needed. So I started expressing. Let my jackals out to run and asked him for a reformulation. And when I noticed he really understood there were tears, I felt release and compassion, managed to stop blaming myself, got more clarity and ended with a request to myself. Wow!
When I got home I immediately asked Pepijn how it had been for him to listen to me. He told me that he could really sense how lonely I must have felt and that it had touched him deeply. I answered that I was really able to feel his presence and compassion, even through the telephone. And that I was very grateful for that, because I have longed for him to be able to listen to me like that for years. And I was curious to know what it was exactly, that made him able to listen like this now?
His answer was that he now felt safe enough to feel with me, to allow the feelings to hit him. Through our daily practice he realized that it’s actually not so scary at all to feel these emotions. And he has realized that I somehow solve my own problems in my own way. It is really doing enough on his part to just listen to me. He then went on to tell me how he mourns that he somehow lost this connection to his feelings and is feeling proud and inspired by the seemingly effortless emotional intelligence of our sons. Which I receive as appreciation for all the effort I put in putting on my triple giraffe ears for all family members most of the time so that our sons can have a different relationship to their feelings and experience unconditional love.
So how does this daily check-in for partners process work? This is the structure that has worked really well for us:
- 1 minute: Short check-in, how are you both feeling? (you might decide to do something different with your time)
- 10 minutes: Partner A speaks, partner B listens with silent empathy (with focused attention without interrupting or speaking at all)
- 4 minutes: Partner B gives a short reformulation (in his/her own words what they heard the other person say), partner A can clarify further or add something until they feel complete.
- 10 minutes: Partner B will now share, and partner A stays in silent empathy
- 4 minutes: Partner B reflects what he/she heard, partner A will elaborate or share how it felt to be heard like this
- 1 minute: Short check-out, you can both share how you feel now after connecting, celebrate and mourn or share appreciations.
This is the structure we started with, we now do it much shorter, just 5 minutes of sharing per person. But I would advise against making this time any longer if you want this to be a frequently recurring habit. There is a chance that it will become exhausting and that secretly you will start to dread the practice. By keeping it tightly structured and with a clear scope, there is more clarity for both parties and it will be easier to stick to it. By the time you start reaping the benefits the habit will become easy and it will have become a sustainable investment in your relationship.
If you and your partner are struggling to keep the relationship loving, are longing for deeper connection and are both motivated to work on it, then I suggest you try this practice at least 2x a week. Some tips to support you make this practice a succes:
- Be clear about the intention. It is about emotional hygiene and practicing empathic listening. So not about having challenging dialogues about something your partner did that you did not like or to resolve long standing conflicts.
- Use an egg timer (we use our telephones) to keep time. Even if this means you are interrupted mid-sentence, keep to the structure and move on to the next step. This gives clarity and build trust that you will both each get heard. It also prevents frustrations about going overtime and building resentment or resistence to the practice.
- You don’t have to sound interesting or have something heavy or substantial to share. Just share what is going on in you at that moment. What is alive in you? What is occupying space in your mind? This is your time to receive care and attention. If you don’t have anything to share, you can receive silent presence from your partner for the duration of your sharing time.
- The listener will not offer advice, try to fix, solve or analyze anything that has been shared. The only job of the listener is to hear the beauty in what the other person is sharing beyond and through their words.
- We have this cheat sheet at hand during the practice. It supports us in reflecting what we heard the other person say. By reflecting back using feelings and needs vocabulary, your partner will much more likely feel heard.