How Shifting from “No…” to “Oh?” Can Help Understand Your Partner’s Perspective

Responding effectively to your partner

The initial goal of communication in any relationship is to develop understanding. Sometimes our sense of righteousness or desire for accuracy gets in the way of developing understanding. Two people will see things differently and often both perspectives are valid ones. Before successful resolutions can be identified, there needs to be an understanding about how both sides see and feel about the issue. As a couples therapist, one of my favorite exercises to walk people through involves recognizing that perspective is essential to understanding.

The exercise goes something like this: First, point your finger straight up at the ceiling and draw an imaginary circle on the ceiling in a clockwise direction (as though you were tracing the numbers of a clock from 1:00 all the way around to 12:00). While you continue to trace the imaginary circle, begin lowering your finger (keeping it still pointed toward the ceiling and still tracing the circle) until your finger is below your chin. While continuing to trace the circle, look down at your finger. Is it still moving clockwise?

Even though you might still be moving your finger in the same direction as when you started, you would now see your finger tracing a circle in a counterclockwise direction. The only thing that changed is your perspective. When starting the exercise, you are looking at the circle from the perspective of being below the circle. When finishing the exercise, you are looking at the circle from the perspective of being above the circle. This difference in perspective changes how you see the direction in which you are tracing. If the question is “which direction are you tracing the circle,” is the correct answer that the circle is being traced clockwise or is the correct answer that the circle is being traced counterclockwise. Well, both are correct, depending on your perspective.

While it might be easy to understand that both perspectives are “correct” in this example, it can be much more difficult to allow for such flexibility when your feelings are involved, or the issue is a very meaningful one to you. It can be hard to set aside your own perspective for a moment to understand their perspective when you feel blamed by your partner for how they feel, knowing that your intentions were very different from how they describe the situation.

It’s not about the details

Too often in therapy sessions when one person shares their feelings, thoughts, or simply recounts their experience about a certain situation, the first words out of the other person’s mouth are something like, “No…that’s not right.” The other person wants to “correct” the facts of the situation or inform the other person that the circle was being drawn in a clockwise direction. To be honest, I catch myself doing this at times as it is such a natural response when I hear something I believe to be inaccurate. One problem with this response is that it shifts the discussion away from how someone feels to the details of the situation, which as we have just demonstrated are subject to perspective.

Thus, in order to work toward a better understanding we want to shift from “No, that’s not accurate” to “Oh? Tell me more.” This can take practice and certainly requires a willingness to view communication in a close relationship as having a primary goal of increasing understanding. Some people might think, “but what about my perspective, isn’t that important.” Yes, yes, it is, and you will have your chance as well. Remember, achieving an understanding of someone else’s perspective does not mean that you must agree with them or that they are right, and you are wrong. As with the clockwise/counterclockwise circle example, both perspectives can be valid, even though neither is definitively “right”. Hopefully, by taking the first step toward understanding, it will free the other person up to be willing to try and understand you as well.

Be curious to gain a better understanding of another perspective

As a society, we have moved away from listening to understand toward listening to respond. We might be curious and listen just until we hear something with which we disagree. Sometimes we listen just long enough until we have an important thought that we really want to share and even if we don’t interrupt might rehearse the thought over and over in our head. True understanding requires patience and willingness to ask questions. I’m talking about questions designed to help shift our own perspective so we can see where the other person is coming from, rather than questions aimed at making a point. The goal is to get to a point where you can effectively explain to the other person your understanding of how they see the situation or how they feel in the situation to the point they respond with some affirmation that you do truly understand. Thus, shifting from “no…” to “oh?” as an initial response is a crucial first step.

Another roadblock to the communication process that can interfere with reaching understanding is that often the other person does not use effective expression of emotion. There is a big difference to saying, “I feel unappreciated when I take the time and energy to plan a night out and that effort isn’t acknowledged” and saying, “I feel like you don’t appreciate when I take the time and energy to plan a night out and you don’t acknowledge it.” While these are almost identical statements, the former is an effective expression of feeling unappreciated, the latter is expressing the thought that the other person does not appreciate you. This creates a roadblock because the thought turns out to be an interpretation of the other person’s behavior, which sets the other person up to argue or explain why that interpretation is not accurate.

This roadblock presents a particular challenge because we cannot control someone else’s behavior (or communication). The best advice I have to offer is to become well-versed in understanding emotion and how to effectively express emotion, then translate what they are saying in your mind into a more effective emotional expression rather than an interpretation of your behavior. Of course, before assuming this translation is accurate, you will want to reflect your translation back to them so they can confirm or correct it. In other words, if your partner says the latter statement (above) about feeling like you are unappreciative, you can translate that statement into the former, that they feel unappreciated (whether you actually appreciate them or not).

If the idea of expressing emotions effectively or listening to arrive at understanding is foreign to you, some other blogs on this website might be useful to you. For example, a blog that covers listening tips you might learn in therapy or a blog that covers learning to manage emotions might be useful backdrops to begin painting a more effective way to respond to your partner. If you have any questions or struggle to understand the concepts, feel free to reach out to me and I’d be happy to provide clarity or additional information.

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Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a Psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida, or any PsyPACT participating state.

If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please visit and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at *Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.

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