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Questions About Communication
My wife says that listening is the most important part of good communication in marriage. Do you agree? And if so, why is what we hear more important than what we say in our conversations?
You are fortunate to have such a wise wife. Listening was (and probably still is) one of my biggest communication struggles with Leslie. Like your wife, she seemed to understand the importance of this skill better than I did. For me, communication was all about trying to get my point across, not so much about trying to understand my wife's perspective through hearing what she had to say. I have since come to respect why your wife and mine put so much emphasis on listening--it solves many, if not most, of the communication problems in marriage. In fact, we often tell couples that almost all of their conflictual conversation could be resolved if each partner would seek to understand before being understood--in other words, if each would learn to listen.
Listening is basic to learning. In fact, listening consumes more time than reading, speaking, and writing combined.1 When you consider this fact, it should not come as a surprise to realize that good listening is a "must" for every successful marriage.
Every spouse who feels cherished by his or her mate will tell you that they feel taken care of primarily because their spouse listens to them. Listening is love in action. Nowhere is it more appropriate than in marriage, yet many couples never truly listen to each other.
Listening is a sign of affirmation. When spouses truly listen, they contribute to one another's self-esteem. When they don't, the interpretation is frequently negative. Be honest. How do you feel when you sense that your spouse is not listening to you? Without being listened to, feelings of rejection are almost inevitable.
Listening requires you to set aside preconceived ideas or judgments and convey a message of acceptance of the person. In fact, listening does not necessarily convey an acceptance of the message, but it does convey an acceptance of the messenger. Think about it. When you are listened to, genuinely listened to, you feel that your spouse is someone with whom you can be fully known and share all of your inner thoughts, weaknesses, and foibles--because he or she accepts you.
Listening opens up another's spirit. When your spouse is speaking and you are not preoccupied or distracted, you are, in effect, saying, "You are very important to me, and I am interested in you." This taps into your partner's deepest need to be understood, and in return he or she will open up all the more.
Nearly every couple we talk to says that communication is the key to a successful marriage. But when we ask these same couples what "good communication" is, we get a lot of foggy answers. Can you pinpoint the most essential parts of good communication for us?
"If you were to boil down good communication skills to their bare essence," we are sometimes asked, "what would you have?" With so many thick books on communication, it is sometimes difficult to cut through the clutter and sum it all up. The following is our attempt:
1. Send clear and accurate messages. Precise and unambiguous statements facilitate good communication, while imprecise and ambiguous statements hinder it. Consider the difference between these two statements: "You hurt me tonight at the party" versus "I was hurt when you spent almost all of your time at the party watching television instead of talking with our friends."
2. Avoid incongruent messages. Do not send simultaneous messages with mutually exclusive meanings. How many messages are contained in the following statements? "There is nothing wrong! And I don't want to talk about it!" Most often, incongruent messages come from a statement that is not in sync with the person's facial expression or tone of voice. When a husband says, "I'm happy to wait for you," but his tone and posture indicate that he is definitely not happy to do so, he is sending an incongruent message that is destined to cause a communication breakdown.
3. Be empathic. Empathy can be defined as listening with your heart as well as your head to truly understand what your spouse is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Empathy involves putting yourself in your partner's shoes and imagining what life would be like from his or her perspective. When your partner tells you about feeling rejected by someone at work, for example, put yourself in his or her position. Use your heart to imagine how you would feel if rejected. Then use your head to accurately understand if what you would be feeling is the same as what your partner is feeling. Every time you empathize, you better understand what your spouse is saying.
4. Provide feedback. Communication involves an exchange of information. The response (or feedback) to the message the other person has sent indicates the message was (or was not) received and was (or was not) understood. "Yes, go on, I'm listening." "No, I don't understand that. Please repeat it." Providing these kinds of simple statements, as well as being attentive with your eyes and body posture, lets your spouse know he or she is being understood--that you are genuinely interested in hearing the message.
5. Be generous with supportive and positive statements. Accuracy, empathy, and feedback are all important. But we all like to feel good about ourselves. When we give recognition to our spouses, when we compliment their accomplishments, and when we reassure them of how important they are to us, we not only make them feel better, we build a stronger foundation for communication. When we feel supported and are supportive, many of the other basic communication skills fall more naturally into place.
While there are plenty of additional elements to good communication, these five qualities are some that we view as being most important. In fact, you might want to review this list from time to time and think about your own communication style. Ask yourself how often you use the practices listed here with your spouse.