Once upon a time, I got into a very big fight with a friend. The kind of fight where bad words are said, and voices are raised, and tears are shed.
We lived several provinces apart at the time, and since it was our only option, we skyped to try and resolve things. The first conversation ended in a stalemate, and we agreed to connect again in a week.
At the beginning of the second call, we established something important; although her friends thought I was being a (w)itch and my friends thought she was being a baby, we were not willing to give up on our friendship. So we talked. Through the entire Super Bowl. And at the end, we still hadn't sorted things out.
I remember walking into the kitchen a little later, praying, "Jesus, if there is something I need to say or do that I haven't, show me what it is. Because I honestly don't know how to fix it."
Then it hit me. So I sat down and emailed her. And she emailed me back. And it was over.
The next morning, I texted her before I even got out of bed.
"We're good, right!? Really and truly! I woke up happy for the first time since this started."
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I had a disagreement brewing. It wasn't a blowout, but over the course of a couple days we tried to resolve things, and failed. On the third day, we sat staring at each other as we reiterated all the same things we'd said before.
I know we both want to figure this out, I thought. So where is the common ground? What am I not hearing?
"Can you tell me again what you're trying to say?" I asked him. "I feel like I'm not really hearing you, and I want to try to listen differently."
He sighed, but tried again, and it was as if all the clichés about lightbulbs turning on and curtains opening and walls crumbling were true. I heard something that I hadn't been able to recognize in the first three attempts. And I knew exactly what I needed to say to him.
As I've been thinking about these two stories, and what exactly changed internally for me that enabled us to resolve things, I realized something:
Defensive listening is not like defensive driving.
Way back in driver's ed, I learned to drive defensively, to look out for myself and be appropriately cautious. It works. It keeps us safe. It's wise.
But defensive listening is the exact opposite. In the context of a relationship, defensive listening focuses on me instead of them, and assumes that my stance/feelings/experience needs to be protected from the other person.
It is the very opposite of trust.
In both these stories, I finally let go of my defensive filter. I set aside my conviction that I was in the right and genuinely tried to hear how they felt.
And in both situations, I realized that I needed to say both, "Thank you," and "I'm sorry."
"Thank you for being honest with me. I didn't realize this connects into a much bigger story. I'm sorry I was thoughtless; I was only looking out for me."
"Thank you for trying to care for me. I'm sorry I didn't see that and brushed you aside."
I've historically run from it as quickly as I can, or shut down and tried to power on through with all my defenses up.
But I'm learning that if I take time to turn off the ingrained habit of defensive listening, we can come together. We can make progress. We experience love and forgiveness.
And next time, it just might be a little easier.