Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
So you've taken the plunge and brought up a difficult issue with your partner, or maybe they've brought one up with you. Good! The next step is to make sure both partner's perspectives are really and truly heard -- otherwise you won't get very far. If you've been thoughtful about how you brought the issue up, you are more likely to be heard, but that's just the beginning.
Making sure both sides are heard:
Each partner should have a chance to express their views and feelings while the other listens. Depending on the complexity of the issue, this may take one brief conversation or several longer ones. (Some issues may be ongoing conversations you have throughout your partnership, such as those involving political or religious differences. Obviously such big topics are never "resolved," but they can become a source of lively debate and discovery.)
When you are speaking, you should express your feelings, acknowledge your part in the issue, and be respectful, as described in Part 1. For example, "I've noticed you've been sleeping later and later on weekend mornings, which leaves me to deal with the kids all by myself. I know I said I'm a morning person, but that doesn't mean I want to do morning duty every weekend. I've also realized I'm sensitive to this because my dad used to sleep most of the day on weekends because he'd been drinking all night, and we had to tiptoe around so we wouldn't wake him. I hated it!"
When you are listening, try to put aside your own feelings for the moment and be open and curious about what your partner has to say. You may very well learn something new if you are open to it. This means not preparing your defense or looking for holes in your partner's argument. The goal is not to win the argument but to try to understand each other. It's quite likely your partner has very good reasons for doing the things that you don't like, and that understanding those reasons will get you closer to a solution. Listening well is actually quite difficult, especially when you may feel defensive. For an excellent book on this topic, see The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols.
A really helpful technique for the listener is to periodically reflect back or paraphrase what you've heard your partner say. You may have heard this called "active listening." For example, "What I heard you saying is, 'When I sleep late on weekends, you feel resentful because you end up having to take care of the kids all by yourself for several hours. Not only that, it reminds you of how your dad used to be hungover every weekend, which you hated.' Is that right?" This is not the way most of us have conversations, so it can feel strange at first. However, it's very valuable for making sure you are understanding what your partner is trying to say, because we frequently mishear and misinterpret things. Even more crucial, your repeating things back lets your partner know you've heard them. Never underestimate the importance of being heard. It can heal old resentments, bring immense relief, and allow us to let go of our anger and become open to our partner's point of view.
When the first speaker has said all he or she wants to say about his/her feelings on the subject, switch roles. In some cases you may need to take a break before doing so, either because there is a lot to say or to let the other partner gather his or her thoughts. Just make sure to come back to it. When both partners have expressed their perspective and have felt heard by the other, you are ready to move toward a solution.