“You never really listen to me; what I say just doesn’t matter…you only hear what’s in your head!” an exasperated wife said to her husband. Does that complaint sound familiar? It certainly does to many people. Indeed, it’s the sort of frustration that drives a lot of unhappiness among couples.
If you want a successful marriage, or, for that matter, any successful relationship of consequence, then it almost goes without saying that working on effective listening skills is essential. The fact that we often fail to do that is underscored by studies demonstrating people talk twice as much as they listen. Yes, you read that right: Twice as much. But, if intimate communication is to be truly productive, then we must reverse this habit and listen twice as much as we talk. That’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
There are lots of reasons why we don’t naturally listen very well.
For one thing, there is often enormous competition for our attention. This can include multiple people who are simultaneously demanding our time, or simply the press of too many things crowding our thinking at once. Our ability to listen carefully can also be compromised by a preoccupation with unresolved personal issues, or by an obsessive desire to be liked (which often means we’re all too ready to see rejection or put-downs).
On the other hand, we may have a destructive tendency to dominate, to exert power or to be the one in charge. By the same token, we may be convinced that we know more or know better than the other person. These attitudes tend to breed an arrogance that assumes we are always right and the other person is always wrong. More than a few arguments are founded on this faulty premise. Such an unhappy state of affairs is often corrupted further by the presumptuous belief that we already know what the other person is going to say before he or she says it.
Sometimes, we may simply be too distracted by images on the computer, T.V., or by other visual stimuli in the surrounding environment to pay attention to what’s being said. Contrary to popular belief (and the arguments of teenagers who are trying to do their homework with the T.V. on), we cannot clearly attend to two messages at the same time. Instead, we rapidly oscillate between the two, consequently missing parts of both.
There may also be the distractions of certain characteristics of the person to whom we’re speaking, such as confusing facial expressions or odd gestural mannerisms, or annoying habits of the speaker (like shaking knees, or verbal non-fluencies). These characteristics are likely to draw us away from the message by triggering extraneous thoughts about the other person.
Complicating matters still further is the fact that most people tend to screen out certain information, either because it’s threatening to them in some way or because they’re not really interested in it to begin with. Often, this information is important for comprehending the real message.
Another reason for not listening well has to do with the so-called “speed gap”: The difference between how fast we talk and how fast we comprehend. The average person speaks at about 135-175 words per minute, but comprehends at about 400-500 words per minute. Such a gap means there is time for our own thoughts to sweep past the words of the speaker and to block understanding of the true message. For those who don’t really try to listen carefully in the first place, that’s also time to jump to conclusions, daydream, plan a reply, or mentally argue with the speaker. Obviously, all of these things get in the way of accurate communication.
It’s important to remember that good listening is more than just keeping quiet. It means fully concentrating on the other person. As active listeners, you should periodically give feedback about what you’ve heard, making sure that you’ve understood the message correctly. This prevents misconceptions from forming and getting a foothold on your thinking. But it also has the added benefit of telling your partner that what he or she has to say is so important to you that you are willing to go to great lengths to properly understand it. Together with maintaining good eye contact and intentional posture (leaning slightly forward) during the conversation, you further reinforce the belief that what your partner thinks matters.
What better message can your behavior give than to let them know how much you care about who they are.
A lot of people don’t listen well simply because it takes considerable effort to do it skillfully. It’s not so much malice of forethought as it is the carelessness of inattention. Success is possible only if you’ve truly made a conscious commitment to do everything in your power to underscore the importance of your partner. In effect, that means that, rather than trying to enforce conformity to your ideas, you welcome the diversity of your partner’s thought. It’s allowing your partner’s world to actively intersect with your own. This, of course, is essentially what establishes the interest value of your relationship and enables the viability of marriage for the long term.
The problem is that this kind of giving (what Jesus partly meant by serving one another) runs counter to our natural tendency to be self-centered. But, if you want unity in your marriage, the other-centeredness of invited diversity is the only road to get there.
And accurate listening is the only roadmap that helps us find it.