How awesome does it feel to be completely understood by someone – to feel that they ‘get’ you when you are explaining a problem!? Do you want to be a spouse that is able to give this blessing?
Listening to understand is one of those skills in marriage that doesn’t have a very sexy label, but is going to go a long ways towards building a thriving, passionate marriage.
I know you’re probably thinking, “But everyone knows how to listen, right? How could it be such a skill?” The reality is, most of us listen to respond, rather than listen to understand!
Listen to Understand: 4 Methods
There are 4 kinds of active listening responses: clarifying, paraphrasing, reflecting and summarizing. These come from the work of Cormier and Nurius.
Rephrase to understand. Try using, “Are you saying…?” or “So, you mean…?”. By rephrasing what was said and repeating it back to the sayer, clarifying helps to deal with ambiguity and vagueness.
Wife [after hectic day]: I just feel like it never stops.
Husband clarifies: Are you saying you’d like me to be more involved with the kid’s bedtime routine? (pulling clarification from the context of the day).
On a complete side note here – all you ladies, listen up! Try to avoid “women-speak”. If you need help, ask for it. It is so much easier on the relationship, and on ourselves, than hinting and hoping our husband catches the hint!
Rephrase your spouse’s content and repeat it back to them. This helps them get more specific. It also helps them to know if you’re interpreting their meaning correctly and lets you dig a little deeper into what they really mean.
Husband: I tried talking to Fred about his lack of results in sales last month, but it was really difficult. He would hardly say a word and I don’t know what to do with him.
Wife paraphrases: Fred is not responding when you’re trying to coach him?
Reflecting is like paraphrasing but pulls the ‘feeling’ words out. This is huge for communicating that you understand, and for helping your spouse to feel understood. It helps them identify core feelings, issues, and concerns. It really goes past the content of what they said to the process of what they’re feeling about a situation.
Wife (for the full effect, read this out loud – take a big breath and let it all come spilling out in a rush!): Little Jimmy came home today and blasted in the door, threw his backpack into my arms and blew right by me shouting over his shoulder that he was heading to the neighbor’s to play on his new game console.
Husband: So you felt disappointed? Maybe kind of hurt and angry about being treated like you were his maid rather than being greeted respectfully as his mom?
(At this point, I, the wife, would yell YES and fall into his arms because he actually understood me!!!)
Summarizing really ties multiple pieces together. It is a combo of 2 or more of clarifying, paraphrasing and reflecting.
Husband: I am just so done with my brother, Joe. I am sick and tired of his negativity and criticism all the time. It was great when he was in that sales job but since he’s been unemployed it’s like he’s so bitter and hard to be with. I don’t know what to do with him or about him now.
Wife: Sounds like you’re kind of sad about losing the old Joe that you knew and enjoyed so much. Are you saying that you wish you could find a way to help him?
Listen to Understand: Other Tips
That sums up the four kinds of active listening, but another great tip is to use good questions.
Use open questions rather than closed questions. Open questions require a longer answer, while closed questions only require a yes or a no. Rather than asking, “Did something happen today?” (yes or no answer), you could ask “What happened today that made you upset?” (needs a few more words!).
As we’ve mentioned before, be aware of the timing! Some times are just not great to have deep discussions. You know those times: right before company comes over, or on the way to church, or in front of the kids. If something comes up that you want to discuss so you can listen to and understand your spouse better, put it aside. Agree on a time to return to the topic, and make sure you do just that.
Nonverbal cues are also essential to show your spouse you’re listening. Things as simple as head nods, open gestures, and posture (no arm crossing and turning away), or even silence can go a long way in showing your spouse that you’re listening and understand what he/she is saying. Eliminate distractions, turn off the TV and the cell phone (or at least ignore it if it dings), and show your spouse they have your undivided attention.
So, next time your spouse says something, try clarifying, or paraphrasing, or reflecting, or summarizing. Ask an open question. Their response may just surprise you.
A question from Mike: “we are in a time of life when taking my wife out for a date is hard work. We have three kids under 6, and in addition to the family, I’m trying to balance my work and our ministry. Do you have any good suggestions for how I can more consistently date my wife?”
This is such a good question! We’ve definitely gone through this and I’m sure you have too. Listen to the podcast for our answer and let us know if you’ve got some suggestions that have worked for you that we can pass on to Mike.
Thanks to KH Wilson for a great iTunes review!