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How to stay Present and not 'zone out' when listening or speaking to a loved one.

Updated: May 6

Mna in gray shirt and brown hair holding hand to head

Each person in a love relationship has a different background and different adaptive behaviors. Which is why we often find ourselves in complementary relationships. Which is great for many areas of our lives, and tricky in others - like knowing how to manage the differing flow of information between you. As example, when one partner is a 'talker' and the other is the 'quieter one', it can be challenging to have a meaningful conversation. Despite learning new relational skills and wanting to show up for each other more often, that willingness to listen can uncork a lot from your partner - especially if they grew up not being listened to and are now craving to be heard. What often results is over-expression, anxiety-'bombing' and then the 'quiet' partner who's trying to listen, getting overwhelmed and 'zoning out'.

On the other hand, when it's the more talkative partners time to listen, the conversation can be equally challenging. Sometimes for the quieter partner, someone showing genuine interest in them is so unfamiliar, that I've heard many say that they don't know what to say, or even how to say it. Which can leave the other partner guessing, feeling shut out and at a loss as to how to get them to say more.

So here are some ideas from my own marriage that may help moderate the 'flow' of dialogue from either direction and improve you chances of connection.


Tips for the quieter, less talkative partner

When listening - If your partner talks a lot, to the point of unloading so much information in one breath that you find yourself dissociating or 'zoning out', try saying something like this:


"wow babe, I can see you have a lot to say about this and I really want to hear all of it. But sometimes I have a hard time taking in a lot at once and I don't want to miss anything. Can you give it to me in smaller bites so I make sure I get it all?" or even,


"wow, this is so important and I can tell you've been thinking about it a while...and because it's new to me, what’s the most important thing you want me to know right now?"


There are many reasons we zone out. For some, it's a learned coping strategy that mitigates something emotionally painful that we don't want to relive. In conversations, it can be because we feel saturated or overwhelmed with information. And because we care so much about our loved one, we hesitate to interrupt them, lest we say the wrong thing at the wrong time and make things worse. I get it. So since I tend to be the 'talker' in our relationship, the best solution my husband found was learning to gently ask for smaller bites of information similar to the examples above. And then he tries to repeat back what I said to ensure he understood. These occasional interjections, by their nature and when done gently, can slow down a rapid-fire monologue, encourage more meaningful sharing and improve your chance of relational connection.

BRAIN FUN FACT- The reason our chances of connection are greater when we slow down is because our brain does different functions at different speeds. And one of those functions is that it can more easily work as a whole (meaning, it can access both intellectual and relational pathways simultaneously ) at a slower brain frequency (speed) called alpha. When you speed up your brain either through thoughts, processing and speech, relational brain areas can’t be accessed as well. Which is why rapid-fire intellectual exchange rarely results in relational connection.

man with glasses and blue shirt listening to man in green shirt

When the 'quiet one' is asked to talk: If you’re someone who is not used to sharing your thoughts, or wasn't really acknowledged as an individual growing up, you may have difficulty with a lot of questions. So here are a few things to keep in mind:


1) Questions don’t always mean someone doubts you, doesn’t believe in you, or that they're trying to take something from you. If as a child you experienced a self-absorbed parent who dismissed your needs to attend to their own, or if you never had your privacy respected, it makes sense that questions may feel a bit 'suspect', or feel ‘invasive'. But remember who you’re talking with now. More likely, questions from your partner are out of genuine curiosity and a desire to know you better. Remember that you’re on the same side against the struggle you're discussing. I also understand that if you felt 'invaded' or disregarded earlier in your life, that you may have a strong desire to keep part of yourself ‘private’ or ‘to yourself’ now. That’s okay if it’s not harmful to yourself, your partner or your relationship. Yet, know that it’s possible to do both - share your thoughts and keep some privacy at the same time.


2) Time your conversations – You're not a terrible person if you don't just jump up, say ‘yes’ and drop what you're doing when your partner says they need to talk. You can respond with kindness and say, “sure, can you give me _____ minutes to finish this up?”. Much of our overwhelm can be partly mitigated by going into a conversation with your mind clear, or at least free(r) from distraction. Granted, timing is also a judgment call in the moment. If your partner is in tears or visibly struggling, by all means stop what you're doing and at least give them a hug. Then set a time as needed for the longer conversation.

Emotional responsiveness is something many of didn't get consistently as kids, that we can give to each other now as adults.



3) Be courageous and speak up when you’re feeling overwhelmed or need a break.  If it’s hard to find the right moment to get a word in because your partner is talking so quickly, try a one-word interjection like gently saying, “Pause”. Then use a personalized version of some of the suggested language mentioned earlier. If you need a break, tell your partner you're feeling overwhelmed, that you need a break but want to finish the conversation later, at a desinated time. And then make sure to follow up and actually do it.

man with brown hair and blue jacket, blond woman in white shirt

Tips for the more talkative partner


When you’re listening -  If your partner is quiet or doesn't talk much, it's important to send the message that it's okay with you that they initially 'don't know' or don't have words to describe what they're going through, and that you're interested in hearing more, when they're ready, or have given it some thought. Read that again. It's important. This may take some patient repetition if your loved one is in the habit of not saying much. So for many people, it can actually be work to learn to talk more. So when your genuine question of interest results in "I don't know", that may be the truth at the moment. So when that happens, try saying something like,"okay. If you think of something later, I'd love to hear about it." Although some people think and process well in the moment, others think and process better with time alone to contemplate. So your quiet, wordless patience can often times have an encouraging effect when repeated. But it does require patience and repetition.


When you're the one talking - having someone genuinely listen can be so healing. Yet, more is not necessarily better.  Dropping 'anxiety bombs' and over-expressing in large volume all at once can easily result in the dreaded 'zone out' by your loved one. It's much more effective to watch their facial expression as you speak, notice when they break eye contact or start looking 'through you' versus 'at you', and practice speaking interactively, using smaller chucks. I myself have been guilty of these anxiety-laced monologue dumps. So believe me when I tell you that most of what you're saying won't be heard or understood by the listener by doing this.


If you want something to stick and be remembered, speak slower and practice relaying small bites of information. Try to intentionally leave silent space (it sometimes takes a lot of it) for the listener to ask a question like, "and then what happened?". You can even help keep the conversation at that slower ‘whole-brain’ pace by stopping and asking something like, "does that make sense so far?" or "should I go on?". 


All this definitely takes practice and neither of you will get it right all the time. My husband and I still get tripped up sometimes. I still over-express at times and appreciate his cues to help me break it down. And he still ‘clams up’ sometimes and appreciate my cues to get him to say more. But the more we practice, the quicker we see it happening in ourselves, interrupt it and start over.


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