One of the many hats I wear is that of a marriage educator. I’ve helped prepare many engaged couples for marriage, and have taught seminars and workshops for already married couples. And as with so many existing relationship curricula, part of what I teach is communication skills, because so much relationship conflict is driven by poor communication. We say things that set each other off, and fail to listen to what each other is saying. If we could learn to do this better, we might save ourselves some grief.
It’s not that there’s only one proper way to speak or listen to one another. There’s no universal technique for always getting it “right.” And some of the research on marriage suggests that couples who have been happily married to each other for a long time often don’t communicate with each other in any way close to what’s typically taught in marriage workshops. They still fight, often over the same things they’ve been squabbling over for years.
That said, however, it’s clear to me that poor communication can both jumpstart conflicts and make existing conflicts worse. We get locked into self-perpetuating vicious cycles. I’m offended by something you said and respond angrily and defensively. You don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, and respond with anger and defensiveness and return. Around and around we go with escalating negativity. Each of us feels like a victim; each of us sees the other as the perpetrator.
And through it all, neither of us may be really trying to understand the other. If we listen at all, we listen only to gain the ammunition we need for our next verbal volley.
By contrast: if in the midst of even the worst shouting match we suddenly feel heard and understood, it helps us to calm down. This can become a self-perpetuating cycle that turns in the opposite direction. You show that you’re listening to me; I feel heard, calm down a little, and am better able to listen to you; you feel heard, calm down a little, and so on.
If that’s how it works, why don’t we do this more often?
Because someone in the relationship has to get the ball rolling by taking a risk and humbling themselves. They have to stop insisting on being heard, quiet the raging voices in their own heads, and listen.
. . .
Conflict, of course, is not limited to the home. It happens in our places of work and in our houses of worship. The New Testament paints an honest portrait of the life of the early church, of the struggles of believers to come to terms with the real-life challenges of become a new family that broke the boundaries of class and culture.
We see this in the letter of James. He doesn’t begin by speaking directly to the social issues; that will come soon enough. Instead, he begins by asking his readers to shift their perspective, to see the challenges they face as opportunities to grow in faith. That includes the recognition that they sometimes let their desires get the better of them, and as he will say in a later chapter, this is at the root of the conflicts between them.
Thus, before he even begins speaking directly to their conflicts, he lays out some simple fundamentals:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20, NRSV)
Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger.
Can we confess that, far too often, we get that exactly backwards? We are quick to anger: it may take nothing more than a word or a gesture, a tone of voice or a certain facial expression, to set us off. We are quick to speak in anger or arrogance, believing that if the other person would just listen to us, there would be no problem. And we are slow to listen — assuming we actually get around to listening at all.
We’ll come back next week to lean further into James’ counsel and its implications, starting with this: why do we get this backwards in the first place?