Listen up (part 1)

(3 of 8 in a series for National Marriage Week)

Photo by Helmut GevertI firmly believe in the value of teaching communication skills to couples (though see post # 7 in this series for a dissenting opinion).  And of the two skills of careful listening and careful speaking, I consider listening to be the higher priority.  Why?  All else being equal, if I had to choose, I’d rather live in a world of patient and compassionate listeners than one filled with skillful speakers.

We all want to be heard and understood.  It’s not so clear, however, that we’re always ready to listen.

Consider what the apostle James says:

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.  This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you — the very word that is able to save you. (Jas 1:19-21, CEB)

James is not, of course, talking directly about marriage here.  He paints a picture of two kinds of growth in a Christian’s life: the growth of wickedness versus the growth of the implanted, soul-saving Word of God.  The former is expressed through quick anger, hasty words, and a refusal to listen to the Word; the latter through a humble reception of the Word in which one listens well, speaks thoughtfully, and isn’t easily inflamed.

Think that might be relevant to couples?  Yeah, me too.  But spouses often get James’ first sentence exactly backwards: they are quick to get angry, quick to spout angry or thoughtless words, and slow to listen — if indeed any listening happens at all.

I’ve given short and simple listening exercises to couples in marriage seminars, only to have them report back in astonishment that they’ve just solved a disagreement that has plagued them for years.  What that suggests, sadly, is that if no one is there to hold them accountable or slow down their angry, knee-jerk reactions, nobody listens.

Good listening doesn’t have to be complicated.  Different marriage manuals and curricula have their own way of teaching the skills, but the ideas and principles are often quite similar.

For the moment, my concern is with attitude.  As James seems to suggest, the growth of the Word in our lives is expressed in humility, and in turn, humility can be expressed in the willingness to listen, even in marriage.

Let’s face it: when you’re already angry or right on the verge of losing it, the alarm bells are going off in your head and you’re in fight or flight mode.  The last thing you want to do is to listen patiently and openly to what the other person has to say.  You’d rather shut your ears and escape, or blast your spouse with angry words — you’ll make your spouse listen, and if you feel heard, you might calm down and do some listening yourself.

No wonder there are so many homes in which nobody is listening.

You’ve doubtless heard countless sermons on humility, but may not have heard many concrete suggestions on how to live humbly.  Here’s one: learn to listen.  In a moment of anger, setting aside the burning desire to make the other person hear you, and opening yourself to listen and actually take in what you hear, can make a world of difference in your relationship.