It was the fall of 2001, and my wife Amy and I had been married for only a few months. She had just started a new job, and for several days in a row, she had come home stressed and overwhelmed about her new role. Late one afternoon, as I was lounging on the couch, I heard her car pull into the driveway, followed by the sounds of her walking through the front door. It wasn’t long before she shared about another tough day at work…and I fell asleep. Needless to say, Amy was not pleased. And rightfully so; good listening skills create safe space in a relationship and show that we genuinely care for others. Everyday--in our marriage, with our children, at our workplace, at church, or in our friendships--we are presented with the opportunity to either love others with good listening or to feed the stress in a relationship by our failure to communicate well.
One of the places in the bible that points us to the importance of listening is found in James 1:19-20: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the kind of righteousness that God desires.” Experience demonstrates the connection that James makes between poor listening, and unrighteous anger. Suppose your wife arrives home from work 20 minutes after she had said would, and because you had cooked a hot dinner that is now getting cold, the first words out of your mouth are irritation at her insensitivity. When she begins an explanation, you cut her off with a sarcastic, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; you never bother with even a phone call to let me know you’re late.” It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to see how this exchange will end.
Most of us prefer speaking rather than listening. We might hear the words being spoken, but we are more concerned with framing our counter-argument, defending our point of view, or poking holes in what the other person is saying. We stare at our phones for hours on end, only looking up long enough to correct our children when we catch them doing something wrong. A relationship lacking good listening will brew hurt, anger, and resentment. Effective listening begins by recognizing that good listening takes work, and a commitment to giving it the time and attention it deserves.
Sometimes, effective listening is derailed because we bring our agenda to the table. A mother listens to her daughter describe a problem with her boyfriend and only offers relationship advice. A widow wonders aloud why the cancer took her husband, and an elder responds by reminding her that “God will bring good out of this.” A husband responds to his wife’s hurt by defending and justifying his actions. In each case, the listener is focused on solving, fixing, or justifying.
Effective listening is tuned in to the message the other person is trying to get across. Early in the conversation, set aside whether you agree or disagree with their point of view, or whether or not they have all the information, or whether their side of the story fits with yours. Some find it helpful to rephrase what you have just heard. Ask questions for clarification when you aren’t sure you understand where the other person is coming from: “Do you mean that the other kids told you that you were cheating at foursquare?” When dealing with issues that create tension, validating the other person’s point of view, even though you may see things differently, or even if you may not have reacted as they did can work wonders. “I can see how you would think that,” or “That makes a lot of sense,” are words with the power to heal, and bridge significant differences because they assure the other person that you have actually heard the words them, and that you “get” them.
As well, find a way to acknowledge the emotion behind the words. When a friend shares that he doesn’t know how to handle life now that his wife has passed away, what isn’t said in so many words is, “losing your wife feels so overwhelming and disorienting.” Pay attention to the facial expression, the posture, and the tone of voice that are clues to the feelings behind the words, and learn to acknowledge the unspoken emotion.
Sometimes, the words a person speaks aren’t really communicating what’s inside. Church members can sound like complaining curmudgeons, until you learn that they have never fully grieved the loss of their wife. Your husband and wife turn a minor disagreement about where to eat into a screaming match because the stress at work has built up all week. When you get the sense that there may be more going on, because a person appears to be overreacting or because their general mood seems “off”, it can help the conversation along if you gently ask if there is something else going on. “You’ve seemed really stressed and I feel like you may be taking it out on me; if there is something else that’s bothering you, I’m here to listen to you.”
Of course, not all communication is about good listening. Learning to speak well is also essential for healthy communication in a relationship. There are at least three important ingredients in constructive speaking.
First, be specific. One common mistake that people make is using the words “always” or “never” in making their point. “You always spend more than our budget.” “You never take out the trash when you are asked.” Such statements are not only untrue, they are also unhelpful because they mischaracterize the person you are speaking to, putting them on the defensive from the get go. It is better to identify the specific action that you are addressing rather than the character of the person.
Second, when possible, use “I” rather than “You” statements. Using the word “You” over and over again in a conversation can begin to sound like repeated accusations. Using the word “I” makes it clear that you are trying to explain your point of view.
Finally, make it a point to express your point of view, whether how a situation made you feel or how you understand a problem. Consider our earlier example. Rather than “You never call when you’re going to be late anyway” (a charge sure to result in an angry retort that only escalates the situation), try to imagine how the conversation would end if he said, "When you don’t call when you’re running late, it leaves me feeling like I’ve wasted my time cooking a meal for us because the food ends up getting cold."
My wife and I have been married nearly 19 years now, and I don’t fall asleep when she’s trying to talk any more. Good communication takes a lifetime, and so we can still grow in this area, but the one of the single most constructive things we’ve done in our marriage has been to work on our communication skills. Become a good listener, and a good communicator, and you are well on your way to a stronger relationship!