Listening Empty

Paying Attention to Our Partner
Jack Berkemeyer



Couple Intimacy

I love telling stories about the relationship of my Grandpa and Grandma. Perhaps it’s because my mom and I spent the first three and a half years of my life living at my Grandparent’s home, waiting for my Dad to return from WWII. My Grandfather, to use a politically incorrect phrase was “hard of hearing.” He always wore one of those old hearing aids with the long cord which attached to a box (about the size of a pack of cigarettes) in a special case around his neck. I learned at an early age to resist talking from next to or in back of him, but rather to speak directly at his chest where the mike was located.

One of his wonderful qualities was his prodigious sense of humor which anyone could anticipate by observing the twinkle in his eye. As a kid, I spent a great deal of my free time with my Grandma. I can’t remember how old I was when I first realized what my Grandpa was doing, but I vividly remember his little smile as I caught him turning down his hearing aid in the middle of a “discussion” with my Grandma. They had a great relationship, but obviously he could “tune her out” at times, especially when he felt challenged by her comments.

He may have had mechanical help, but he isn’t the only one who has learned at times to “tune out” their partners. It’s so true that effective listening can be most difficult when our lives, our heads, our hearts are filled with so many distractions which take up so much “inside airtime” and consequently don’t allow us to be present enough to our loved ones, to be able to truly hear them. We can inadvertently “tune out” each other and figuratively turn down the volume on our internal hearing aids. The concern is that when we tune out our partners, we can more easily lose emotional connection with them.

One way to think of this vital gift of listening is to think about it as “listening empty.” So what does it mean to “listen empty.” At its root, it means intentionally choosing to eliminate barriers, to empty out distractions in order to create the right conditions for listening to exist. It implies that for the moment we are willing to table our own agenda and refuse to defensively work on our response while our partner is still talking.

“Effective listening can be most difficult when our lives, our heads, our hearts are filled with so many distractions.”

I’m convinced that one of the massive obstacles to empty listening is our contemporary obsessiveness with the ever present family calendar. My friend, Bill Doherty, from the University of Minnesota calls this experience “time famine.” There’s so much to do that partners find it difficult to be empty enough to listen to each other.


The best antidote for these time famines is to be more intentional about couple time. It’s not that we intentionally “tune out” each other, but we must be intentionally empty of other junk/agenda to truly open up to each other. Carve out and jealously protect weekly time (perhaps a date night) to check in with each other and empty everything else out – internally as well as externally. Listening will flourish and emotional connection will grow.