Becoming obedient to the teaching that we should be quick to listen and slow to anger, instead of the reverse, takes intentional effort. Let’s face it: anger comes quickly to us. That’s something we share in common with the rest of the human race. If we’re able to slow anger down and listen instead, it will be because we’ve learned to do so, and for reasons that matter to us. As we’ll see in the next post, the reason is that our anger “does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20, NRSV). In this post, however, the third and final part of the short series on listening, I want to suggest some guidelines for learning to listen.
The skill of listening well isn’t hard to learn. I’ve seen it happen time and time again in marriage workshops that I’ve taught: even the simplest of behavioral changes can make a big difference.
Usually, I have couples practice small changes first, then work up to the bigger ones. I teach them a simple listening skill, then ask them to practice it with some non-controversial topic of discussion, something that won’t start a fight.
And of course, there’s always the couple that doesn’t follow the instructions. They jump right in with one of the issues that’s at the top of their list of grievances. Sometimes, I have to step in and redirect them.
But one couple actually made it work for them. All I was asking the group to do was to take turns speaking and listening. One would speak for a few minutes, while the other remained quiet and listened. The listener didn’t have to come up with any response beyond merely nodding or making simple sounds of affirmation in appropriate places (Patty Howell and Ralph Jones call this “Power Listening Lite”).
The couple in question decided, against the instructions, to tackle a sensitive issue. I didn’t know this was happening, because neither of them seemed overly angry as they did the exercise. And at the end, when I asked people to share their experiences, the husband raised his hand. “We just solved a problem that we’ve been arguing about for years.”
All in less than ten minutes.
Because when they were at home by themselves, they automatically fell into “quick to anger, slow to listen.” In the artificial environment of a marriage workshop, they were forced to listen to each other. And that’s all it took to stop the merry-go-round.
. . .
What does it look like, then, to listen well? Here are some guidelines that I’ve published elsewhere as part of the process of “constructive communication.” It begins with learning to calm down before having difficult discussions. Again, we tend to be quick to anger, and it’s difficult to listen (or to speak in less hurtful ways!) when we’re feeling angry and defensive. That’s the first recommendation: learn the warning signs that your body gives you when you’re upset (e.g., elevated heart rate, clenched jaw, tight neck muscles, clammy hands, etc.) and take a break to calm down before trying again.
There are then three principles for listening:
- Focus your attention on your partner (turn toward them; if any defensive thoughts pop into your head, don’t fight them or pay attention to them);
- Try to understand both the thoughts and the feelings your partner is expressing (they may not actually use feeling words, and remember, nothing in this requires that you feel the same way or agree with what your partner says);
- Show that you understand (e.g., by saying back to them what you think they’re trying to say, in your own words, but without any sideline commentary).
The three principles can be embodied in different ways by different people. Success in listening is not in the fact that we followed a set of behavioral rules; these are only means to an end. The end is that the other person feels like they’ve been heard and understood — even if we disagree. And to reach that end, we need to pay attention, try to understand, and show that we understand.
Side note: showing that you understand does not mean saying, “Yes, yes, I understand. But…” — even if you do, in fact, understand. What that communicates to the other person is your impatience to get your own point across, instead of your desire to understand the other person’s experience. It’s your responsibility to show that you understand, and if you still haven’t quite got it, to try again.
Why should we do this, or for that matter, anything else that might embody better listening? Will it make our relationships better or happier? Hopefully, though there are never any guarantees. As believers, we commit ourselves to such change, not simply because it will make our lives easier, but because it’s one way of growing toward being the people we should be.
And again, as we’ll see, to James this is a matter of the righteousness of God.