We are often poor listeners because we think of listening as merely hearing and retaining information. In a day of information overload, the significance of listening is easy to overlook. Consider this expanded definition of listening—listening is how you enter the world of another person.
In relationships “insiders” and “outsiders” are determined by what you share and what you’re willing to hear. When you tell someone your private thoughts you make them an “insider.” When you withhold your private thoughts you make them an “outsider.” When you are available to listen, you are demonstrating your willingness to become part of your spouse’s world, which is more than sharing the same space (house).
Read Ephesians 5:25 in light of John 1:14-18. How did Jesus love his bride, the church? Jesus fully entered her world in order to understand her unique challenges and her experience of those challenges (Heb. 2:17-18). How do we apply the profound theological truth of Jesus’ incarnation to our marriages? We listen to our spouse until he/she feels understood. In the same way that Jesus’ incarnation provides us assurance that he understands every aspect of our life (Heb. 4:15-16), our listening assures our spouse that we are for/with them in the midst of life’s joys and struggles.
This reality is convicting. We realize we have neglected one of the simplest, most meaningful and foundational ways that God calls us to love our spouse. But conviction without instruction results in guilt without hope. The gospel always gives hope in equal (or greater) measure than it brings convictions. So below we will provide many skills and perspective intended to enhance your listening ability.
No instruction can create or replace desire. The main skill in being a good listener is wanting to be a good listener. The core of listening is placing enough value on the other person and what he/she is saying that you quit playing your thoughts (mentally or verbally) over theirs. When you begin to do this you will find that your responses and body language almost always draw out the other person. The skills below are merely examples of things that value other people.
1. Show and Maintain Interest: Some conversations are interesting because of their subject. This makes effective listening much more natural. However, there are times when our interest is given because of the value we place on the relationship instead of the subject. When, in marriage, we only listen well to subjects of interest we either force our spouse to perform (creating undertones of pressure/rejection) for our attention or neglect important areas of life (creating family systems that will inevitably fail).
2. Honor through Body Language: The majority of indicators of interest are non-verbal: eye contact, pleasant facial expressions, nodding your head, leaning forward, facing the speaker, relaxed shoulders, unfolded arms, and removing distractions (i.e., checking your phone or working on a project). When we fail to honor our spouse through body language we create a temptation for them to increase the “force” of their speaking in order to gain our attention. Honoring body language decreases the temptation towards ineffective communication.
3. Glean Purpose before Content: Words serve a purpose. If your spouse is afraid and you debate the accuracy of his/her descriptions, then you are missing the purpose for the content – likely increasing their fear which will be expressed as anger. To slow your listening down begin with the question, “Why is my spouse talking?” instead of “What is my spouse saying?” Once you know your spouse’s purpose for speaking it will help you utilize the appropriate type of listening from the list above.
4. Be Aware of Filters: We must be willing to hear a message as it was intended, not as we experience it. Look at the list of “filters” below and consider how their influence would impair your ability to fairly hear your spouse: Fears, Past Experiences, Values, Beliefs, Expectations, Future Dreams, Prejudices, Assumptions, Interests, Recent Events, or Insecurities.
The differences that exist in the personality, history, and aspirations of a husband and wife requires that we are aware of the impact of these filters if we want to have “the same conversation” as we talk about a given subject. If we are not aware of our filters, we will change the meaning/significance of our spouse’s words and hold them responsible for our reaction. This is a recipe for shutting down communication.
5. Clarify Confusing Points: Often a confused expression or tilted head is enough to request clarification without interrupting. Good clarifying questions assume that there is a good answer for what doesn’t make sense yet. For example, it is better to ask, “How do [assumes there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” than “How can [expresses skepticism that there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” Times of confusion tend to be critical junctures where grace leaves communication. For this reason, couples should realize the need for extra grace and patience during exchanges of clarification.
6. Summarize Information: Summarize the key points or experiences your spouse has shared before giving a response. This reveals that you are listening and ensures that your “take aways” match what your spouse was sharing. Beyond insuring that you are responding to what your spouse was actually trying to say, this has another benefit. It also allows you to clarify whether your response is to a part or whole of what your spouse said. When we fail to summarize what we’ve heard, it is common for partial perspectives/suggestions to come across as total generalizations/fixes. Each time the speaking-listening roles change in a conversation that will be a moment when trust is gained or lost. This is why interruptions are so bad for communication. A 30 second summary at these exchanges often saves many 30 minute (or longer) arguments.
7. Listen to Affirm / Honor: It is so easy to just listen for what needs to be different, changed, or corrected. After all, that is where the progress, growth, or change will happen as a result of communication. When we succumb to this temptation, listening becomes a very negative exercise. Too often this kind of point is made as a way to avoid hurting the feelings of someone who is sensitive. When we frame listening-to-affirm this way, we miss how it shapes our character and attitude. If we want to be a Christ-like listener, we will discipline ourselves (until it becomes something we naturally enjoy) to find things to affirm, celebrate, or encourage in what our spouse says.
8. Postpone Evaluations: There is a time for evaluative thinking in marital communication. It is usually near the end of a communication exchange (unless it’s a purely problem solving / decision making interaction). The willingness to suspend critical thinking during casual conversation is a way to communicate trust and to show that the relationship has value beyond what it achieves. This is why casual conversation (next chapter) is so important to marriage; it is a primary time when the marriage is honored and your spouse is cherished simply for who they are.
9. Listen Like You’re Taking a Prayer Request: The question is often asked, “How do I know if I have listened well?” Here is a good litmus test – could you pray for your spouse about this topic of conversation in a way that he/she felt like accurately represented him/her to God? God may use you to answer the prayer you would pray and if he chooses to do so the time you took to understand your spouse’s concern will make you a much more fit instrument in his hand. Until you can represent your spouse in prayer you have listened well.
10. If You Don’t Know What to Say, Ask More Questions: Often the pressure to know what to say is what prevents us from listening well. We become like the person who so badly wants to sleep that his desire to sleep prevents him from sleeping. Listening is best done when we’re relaxed (otherwise our fears focus our attention on ourselves instead of our spouse). Giving yourself the freedom to merely ask another question if you don’t know what to say can often be the thing that makes the implementation of these other skills possible.