Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. (S. Covey)
Your job is to get much more interested in your partner’s perspective and experience, and seek to find the kernel of truth in what they are experiencing. Yes, the message may often be exaggerated or even somewhat distorted, but there is almost always a kernel of truth there. And understand that one reason your partner’s message gets exaggerated is that they feel unheard, unacknowledged, or dismissed. (We go on and on, or escalate, when we don’t feel heard.)
Your challenge is to align yourself with your partner in the common goal of communication. This is a step-by-step process, whereby whoever starts as the Listener, after listening, begins by saying “What I heard you say was this:” You then proceed to reflect back as accurately as possible each point the Speaker made. At the end, you say; “Did I get that right?”
You do not give your thoughts, feelings, or opinions about what was said. Those are irrelevant to this part of the exercise. (That can come later, when you are the Speaker.) You are trying to listen accurately. The goal is for the Speaker to be able to say “Yes, you got that right.”
At first, the Speaker may say “You got this first part right. Now that I hear you reflect back the second part, what I meant to say was this instead. You didn’t quite get the third part right, it was (this); and you missed the fourth part.” Ideally, this information is not communicated with anger or frustration, but rather from a stance of “we are a team with the common goal of successful communication”. Then the Listener can try again, again ending with “Did I get that right?”
Continue with this process until the Speaker can comfortably say “Yes, you got that right.” Then you can switch roles.
Drop into reflective listening whenever you start to realize that one or the other is either not hearing, not understanding, beginning to get upset, etc. If you call for reflective listening, offer to start as the Listener.
Many couples schedule regular meetings or check-ins with each other, beginning with reflective listening as a matter of course.
Especially for quickly escalating couples, Reflective Listening slows the process way down, helping you respond more accurately to what your partner is actually trying to say, without jumping right into the defense or counter-attack. You also learn that you can tolerate discomfort without having to leave or get overwhelmed in some way that leads to destructive behavior.