Listen up (part 3)

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

In all the years that I’ve taught communication skills to couples, I’ve never had anyone challenge the importance of good listening.  Some, however, wonder aloud: “Do real people talk this way?”

Here’s a bit of perspective.  Training in communication skills is not a magic bullet to solve all couple conflict, nor do all successful couples use such skills on a regular basis.  It comes down to this: what you want in your marriage is love, acceptance, mutual understanding, and closeness — and if what you’re already doing by way of communication is getting you those things, then just keep doing what you’re doing!

Most couples, however, find that their normal ways of speaking and listening fail them from time to time.  It’s in those moments that different skills are needed.  You don’t use them all the time.  If your spouse says, “Turn off the light, please,” just do it; you don’t have to say, “So what I hear you saying is that you want me to turn off the light.”  Think of it has having the right tools for the right job; you use them when you need them.

And you may need them more often than you think.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you learn and practice new skills for your relationship.

Any new skill feels awkward at first.  Remember when you first learned to drive a car?  The skills may be second nature now, but they weren’t always.  For driving, you had the motivation to persist and practice.  Hopefully, the same is true for learning new ways to communicate.  It may feel clunky for a while, but it won’t stay that way if you keep it up.

The goal is for your spouse to feel heard.  Again, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be heard.  Listening is how you humbly give that gift to your spouse, and doing it well opens a space for you to be heard in turn.  The point of listening is to establish a connection.  Your spouse will let you know if you’ve succeeded, by saying “Right!” or “Exactly!”, or visibly relaxing and softening.  Listening builds trust and a feeling of safety, and the various techniques for good listening are but means to that end.  So ask yourself: how important is that kind of connection to you and to your marriage?  That’s the motivation for persevering in learning the skill.

Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt.  When you first decided to marry, I sincerely doubt that you said to yourself, “My future spouse is a selfish idiot and a total loser — but marriage sounds like a great idea anyway!”  Your feelings may have shifted, and perhaps for good reason.  But as trite as it may sound, often, there really are two sides to a story, and you can’t get the other side without good listening.  If you come into a conversation having already decided that your spouse is the villain, it will be nearly impossible to listen well.  So try to remember: somewhere in there is the person you married in love and admiration, and patient listening may help you find him or her.