How Does Negative Interpretation Affect Your Ability to Listen?

Updated: Apr 13

by Dawn L. Billings, founder of RelationshipHelp.com

Your worst enemies in life

are your repeated negative interpretations of your experiences.


My mother used to tell me, “We don’t learn from talking; we learn from listening. That is why God gave us two ears and only one mouth.”


Most people use their mouth much more than they use their ears. Think about it. When you are supposed to be listening are you? Or, are you figuring out your come back or your argument to the point someone is trying to make.


Listening will help you to understand the biases of your thoughts and interpretations. Not only when you commit to actively listening to others, but also, when you stay silent so that you can listen to the dialog inside your head. What are you saying in your head as you are supposedly listening? Most of us are having full on defense preparation before we have even finished listening to what another person is saying. As you listen to your thoughts, are you negatively interpreting everything that is being said to you? Are you discounting, resenting, feeling agitated or insulted? If you are, you can bet that negative interpretation is impacting your ability to listen.

Negative interpretation bias, the tendency to appraise ambiguous situations in a negative or threatening way, has been suggested to be important for the development of adult chronic pain, both physical and emotional. It really comes down to perspective. We can look at any situation with a positive spin or positive interpretation or we can look at the same situation through negative lenses and negative interpretation.


Figure out why what your partner is saying is triggering the thoughts and feelings you are having. What is the meaning you are giving to what your partner is saying? Drs. Scott Stanley and Howard Markman from the University of Denver and founders of Prep, Inc., say these negative interpretations are "destructive" in a marriage because "they make any conflict or disagreement harder to deal with constructively," and they are "hard to detect and counteract once they become cemented into the fabric of a relationship."


In other words, negative interpretations can turn small molehills into mountains.

Negative interpretation is when one partner (or family member) believes that the intentions of another are more negative than they really are. This belief diagnosis', labels, or pigeon holes a loved one. Negative interpretations appear in the following ways:

  • You prepare yourself for the worst in every conversation.

  • You hear things with a more negatively bend than your partner intends them.

  • You develop a habit of believing the worst instead of the best from your partner.

  • You see the negative you expect, and blind yourself to the positive.

  • You unconsciously encourage your spouse to behave toward you in ways that are in alignment with your negative expectations. (The Pygmalion Effect)


So take a moment and ask yourself, "Do you negatively or positively interpret what your partner is saying?" When your relationship is struggling, a huge factor can be negative interpretation, which has proven to be very destructive to healthy, effective communication. Negative Interpretation can sound like…


“I can hear it in their voice when they speak to me. My partner doesn't care about me."

"You never want to help me. - I have to do everything myself. What good is being married?"

"That's exactly what I would expect you to say. You are always negative."

“He is simply hopeless. (Or - she's hopeless.)” or "You are hopeless!"

"If your mouth is moving, you are lying."


Many times these internal judgments are hard to detect in yourself because you convince yourself you are not being negative, but instead what you are saying and feeling is the truth. When you believe that your partner is inherently mean, selfish or has a negative intent towards you you watch carefully for any potential sign that proves your belief to be true..

Do you believe that you negatively interpret things your partner does or says? If so, you could be setting yourself up for heartbreak because your negative beliefs and interpretations will continue to harm your relationship and fortify your negative beliefs about your partner and their intentions. But, at least you have control over your thoughts. You can change them.

Do you believe that your partner negatively interpret things you do or say? This is much harder to deal with because you cannot control how another person chooses to perceive your intentions. In this case you might want to look into counseling, or an ONLINE relationship program that can help you and your partner enhance your positive actions and reactions, while lessening your negative actions and reactions toward one another.

Dawn Billings is a personality and relationship expert and is the founder of RelationshipHelp.com and the author of the relationship help ONLINE programs, Relationship Help At Home. Dawn lives in Arizona and hosts couples retreats for people looking for answers about how to fix their marriages.

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