Listening Partnerships have been my parenting saviour. They have meant that I have had somewhere to take my feelings, work through confusions, and think through my parenting challenges without fear of being judged, given “helpful” advice, or have it taken personally or brought up again by my listener.
However, it can sometimes be a challenge to find someone to form a Listening Partnership with, and it can be an option to ask a friend, relative or your parenting partner if they are interested. This may have the advantage of convenience, but there a few things to be careful about when you are setting up a Listening Partnership with someone so close to home.
(For the rest of this article, I will refer to “parenting partner” as the person you may be beginning a Listening Partnership with, but these guidelines apply just as well to any relationship where you have regular contact outside of a formal Listening Partnership. Learn more about general guidelines on how to do a Listening Partnership.)
What makes a good Listening Partnership?
There are some key ingredients to building a successful and lasting Listening Partnership. And they are generally not what we think when we first start out. You don’t need to already be best friends to make a Listening Partnership work, and in some ways, there is greater freedom in a Listening Partnership with someone with whom you don’t share any other relationships. And you don’t need to have a whole lot in common – often, so long as they agree to the basic guidelines, it can be easier to listen to someone with whom you don’t have so much in common. Their story is less likely to remind you of your own.
The two things that are the most important are:
- You both agree to the basic principles of the Listening Partnership; and
- Your schedules coincide.
First, your Listening Partner needs to have agreed to maintain confidentiality, take equal turns, and not offer their opinions or advice. Then, Listening Partnerships tend to live or die on whether you can find a time that works for you both.
Start with a stranger
We don’t recommend that your first Listening Partnership is with your parenting partner. There’s a lot to be said for having someone outside the family, and even outside your friendship circle, to “vent” with.
For one, you aren’t likely to bump into them in the supermarket (or face them over the breakfast table) and have them forget the guideline on confidentiality. If they forget, they might ask you about how you are going after the dreadful parenting moment you had shared with them in a Listening Partnership the week before. You might not want to re-visit that moment.
Or (for example) they aren’t going to meet your parents-in-law over dinner and be challenged to remain polite despite all your complaints, in your Listening Partnerships, about said parents-in-law!
So, if you are new to Listening Partnerships it’s good, if possible, to learn the ropes with someone who you do not meet or spend time with in any other context. And that way, if you make mistakes, you won’t also wreck a friendship (or a marriage…) (-:
However, if you are really keen to try this with your partner, with some careful management, it can be a rich and rewarding addition to an already committed relationship. The challenges come from the complexity of the relationship, and the opportunities for “buttons to get pressed”.
Approach with caution…
With your parenting partner, you’ll need to approach a Listening Partnership a little differently from the way you might if you were beginning with someone you did not already have a relationship with. Because your relationship with your parenting partner is complex and multilayered, you will probably find there are some topics it is very hard to listen to one another about. For example, despite my best intentions, if my husband starts to worry about money in his Listening Time, I have a GREAT deal of trouble remembering that I am supposed to be listening. Invariably, I forget my role is to listen without giving opinions, and unfortunately we often end up in an argument. )-:
With Listening Partnerships in general, a goal is to be able to talk about absolutely anything, and not to have to censor yourself. That said, it’s always good to make a judgment call about what your Listening Partner is likely to be able to handle, or what might distract them from paying good attention to you.
A simple example: if they are a very polite person who would be very uncomfortable with swearing, then you can probably figure out a way to work through your feelings of frustration without swearing. That way, you won’t risk distracting your Listening Partner from the main issue: listening to how you are feeling.
However, with your parenting partner, there are likely to be many topics which might derail the Listening Time. If you want to try a Listening Partnership with your parenting partner (or anyone else that you are close with) it can be helpful to make a map, ahead of time, of the topics you know you will not be able to listen to each other about. Once you have them listed, agree to avoid talking about them in Listening Partnerships together.
Also, don’t bring up issues over which you might have been arguing (if they aren’t on the list of Hot Topics). It’s similar to the principle that applies in Special Time with your children: your Listening Partnership needs to be a “trouble-free zone”.
Confidentiality is one of the key ingredients that makes a Listening Partnership work and keeps it safe. It’s important to know that what you have spoken about and the feelings you have expressed while in a Listening Partnership will not be taken out of context or brought up without your permission.
It’s a LOT harder to maintain confidentiality when you have a Listening Partnership with someone with whom you have a lot of contact with and share a lot of time and experiences. You will need to ask yourself “Did they say those words or raise that topic inside a Listening Partnership, or was it in a general conversation?”
You will both make mistakes about this. If you are parenting together, maybe living together, running a household together etc, then it will be a lot harder to maintain the confidentiality of the Listening Partnership. It’s much easier if you have a Listening Partnership with someone you only ever talk to at set times, and who you don’t interact with outside of that.
Because mistakes are possible, even likely, it’s important to be careful. If you aren’t sure whether it was something covered inside a Listening Partnership, then ask if it’s OK to mention it, and avoid the topic if your partner says no. Or, if it is important, perhaps make a more formal arrangement to talk about the issue, that’s clearly separate from your Listening Time. But don’t say back to your partner their specific words from a Listening Partnership which you found annoying, unfair, wrong etc.
And if you make a mistake, or they make a mistake, and someone mentions something which was raised in a Listening Partnership, correct it as soon as you become aware of it, and move on.
Go for the roots, not the branches
In a Listening Partnership with your parenting partner, it will be much easier to listen to one another about experiences from the past, experiences you weren’t both involved in.
This turns out to be a very effective way to work on points of difficulty and tension which arise in everyday life, or in everyday parenting. In general, the things we struggle with as adults tend to be things which remind us of difficult, tension-filled, experiences in the past. Telling the story of how those things affected us in the past, rather than focussing on the present, is a bit like cutting a tree off at the roots, rather than spending a lot of time trimming all the branches.
When you notice that you are upset about something that is an issue in your current family life, instead of talking a lot about the issue as it presents now, ask yourself “what is the earliest memory I have of this feeling/event etc”, and go with that.
The additional advantage of “working early” is that there is much less chance of your Listener getting confused that they have to solve the problem now, or that the difficulty you are having is about them.
Have a pre-agreed topic
Having a set topic can help us avoid some of these difficulties that can arise when we add a Listening Partnership to an already complex relationship.
One of my favourite topics for couples-or-friends doing Listening Partnerships together is “what was it like when you were x years old?”. You pick the same age as one of your children, especially if you are having trouble with that child at the moment. My husband and I have a teenager, and every week we take time listening to one another about our early lives – at the moment we are working through the story of our teenage years.
Parenting constantly reminds us of our own early lives. We are pulling up memories, and the feelings that went with those memories, even if we are not aware that this is happening. Your child is starting school? Ask yourself what it was like for you starting school. Your child won’t do chores or come to the dinner table? What was it like for you growing up around chores/dinnertime? Your child is four? The topic doesn’t have to be more specific than that.
Taking Listening Time with this more structured approach is a bit like preventative maintenance: it helps us understand what it is in our own story that is getting triggered by our children. As we work through our own feelings from the past, we are less likely to be triggered by things in the present.
Having pre-agreed topics also protects against the danger of pointing out what we think our parenting partner has done wrong in the situation. Your partner thinks your teenager is lazy? You may be tempted to suggest to your partner that this is because their parents thought they were lazy. That may be true, or not, but it may sound like advice or judgment which gets in the way of listening. But if you have a regular Listening Partnership set up with your partner you can hold your tongue and trust that if your partner gets to talk about what it was like being a teen, they will work through some of the tensions from the past which are contributing to tensions now.
You may also gain new insights into your partner, and a better understanding of why some things in their relationship with you, or your child, are difficult.
Don’t drift into a conversation at the end of Listening Time
If you are close, it will be natural to tend to drift into a conversation with on another once the timer has gone off. In general, it’s not a bad practice when you have Listening Time to be very clean with the ending – perhaps plan to get up and do something together, rather than stay chatting. In particular, it’s good practice not to get into a conversation, after Listening Time, about something which came up in Listening Time. It’s too easy to get into a habit of breaching confidentiality if you do this. If there is something you want to come back to talk about in a more conversational way, ask yourself 1) if that is really necessary, and if you really think it is 2) raise it at another time. If it is at all clear that it is referring to something said inside Listening Time, then ask permission: “You spoke about this in Listening Time – is it OK to talk about it now?” and be prepared that they might say no. But in general, best to leave topics raised in Listening Time, in Listening Time.
So, in short
So to summarise, when starting a Listening Partnership with someone with whom you have an already existing relationship, we recommend:
- Clarify and steer clear of hot topics and don’t bring up difficulties.
- Be careful about maintaining confidentiality, and don’t drift into conversations about the topics once LIstening Time has finished.
- Tell your early story connected with the difficulty in the present – go for the roots, not the branches.
- Have a pre agreed topic.
- Make the proposal when things are going smoothly, along the lines of “Would you like to try a Listening Partnership?” It won’t work well to propose it when you are already upset with one another.
- Be clear about the “rules” for a Listening Partnership. Before your first Listening Partnership read these short guidelines out loud together. (I recommend this for all beginning Listening Partnerships. It’s easier to correct a mistake if you were both clear from the start about what was in the agreement to listen to one another.)
- Keep it short at first. Don’t be too ambitious.
- Be very pleased with each other.
- Make sure you both get equal listening time. Some people are talkers, some are more reluctant. But everyone has a story to tell. Over time, if one of you takes more time than the other, things will start to feel unfair.
- Be patient, and don’t have any agenda for what your partner should work on in their time, or how they should work on it. For instance, all sorts of emotions can be processed while talking about a topic which seems “unrelated to the present problem”. It could be a team sport, being at school, wanting a pet as a child or any other topic. Talking is an important way of processing feelings – and some people don’t find it easy to cry.
And have fun!
No need to go it alone!
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