Experts tell us that marital conflicts center on common themes with sex and money taking the top spots. Failure to communicate has to be a contender given the frustration expressed by many spouses, “You don’t listen!”
We know how it goes. The spouse is talking. The ears are detecting sound, but the mind is on safari. Then comes the pop quiz, “Are you listening to me?” The correct answer is given, “Sure, honey, I’m listening.” And the follow up is the dreaded essay question, “OK, what was I talking about?”
Two people with two personalities and often widely-varying perspectives rarely agree on every issue or express themselves in similar ways. Resolutions and workable compromises come as we discuss our viewpoints. Remove listening from the process, though, and we have two people ping-ponging words into a growing pile on the floor.
While hearing is passive listening requires action as I discipline my mind to connect with the speaker. Her words, inflections and gestures will help me extract the message, but I have to remain involved.
We can improve our listening skills by adopting a few new habits. Here are some helpful tips.
Set aside time for listening.
Ascribe the proper priority to issues and the surrounding discussion. Schedule an appointment on the family calendar. Select an appropriate venue such as a quiet coffee shop, a serene walking trail, a favorite bench in the park, or the closet if that works.
Televisions—flat screens or older boat-anchor models—are anti-conversation devices. Pointing the remote at your spouse and pressing “mute” will not result in peaceful viewing of the last half of your favorite TV show. For best results squelch the TV instead.
Checking email or fiddling with the smartphone while our spouse pontificates will greatly reduce our comprehension and retention of the message. Scientific observation reveals that a husband/wife opening a magazine, unfolding the newspaper, or cracking open the latest book may function as a verbal laxative triggering an explosive desire in the wife/husband to talk. Continuing to read while our partner speaks ushers in trouble as explained in the second paragraph of this post.
Observe a verbal ceasefire.
As we listen certain trigger words and subjects about which we are passionate induce a desire to interrupt the speaker and interject a response. This urge becomes acute when we sense the other party is either clue-free or missing key elements in understanding the topic. Listening screeches to a halt as our brain activity is directed to planning our response and searching for a key opening in the word flow.
Wait. Allow the speaker to finish her thought. Analyze and consider her message before responding. The Creator gave us two ears and a single mouth, as a reminder to be “quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 2:19). Solomon warns us:
Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.
Proverbs 21:23 NLT
Avoid rabbit trails.
When we sense our spouse is winning the verbal skirmish the temptation arises to insert other issues into the discussion. We prefer to shift to topics where we have superior knowledge that will assure our verbal victory. Note she might launch a retaliatory attack with new ideas of her own. Soon the conversation degrades into a cornucopia of subjects, the original concern is buried in a compost pile of useless words, and any chance of meaningful communication is lost.
Discipline your mind to stay on track. Take calming breaths. Throttle your speech except to review and repeat her points. Nix any editorial or snarky comments, but ask clarifying questions if necessary. The goal is to understand her message, nothing else.
As we read we may compensate for momentary attention lapses by flipping back a few pages to recheck the data in question. Speaking and listening are real-time activities. Once the words are spoken, they are gone. Therefore we must keep up.
Be a kind listener.
Kindness is best demonstrated by actions. Listening with kindness means we value the speaker and the message. We pay attention to the tone of our voices and the selection of words as we respond. Our goal in listening/speaking is to benefit our spouses and to affirm our love for them.
Care to try these five steps for eight weeks and share the effect on your marriage? With a little effort we can improve our skills, reduce miscommunication, and strengthen our relationships.