Communication is one of the most commonly sited struggles that couples face.
“We just can’t seem to communicate.”
“If only she would say what she means instead of making me try and guess.”
“If she would stop her nagging.”
“If he would open up to me.”
The list goes on and on. Why is it that we have such a hard time communicating? I believe that there are primarily two reasons that we struggle. One reason is that we are selfish. We want to be heard but don’t really want to hear what the other person has to say. We long to be understood and validated. Yet for some reason we have a difficult time offering that same understanding and validation to others. When they speak we respond with a quick “I understand what you are saying” when we have really been planning our own come back the whole time they were speaking. We act like we already know what the other person is thinking and feeling. We want to be right at all costs, even if it means damaging the relationship. We want to appear smart, superior, or powerful, without consideration for the other person. Ultimately, we want to have it on our own terms, in our own way.
The second reason we have trouble communicating can be attributed to a lack of skill. We really truly do want to communicate our needs AND hear the needs of others, but it is hard, our emotions get in the way and we end up going in circles around topics. The good news is that there are skills that can be taught to improve the effectiveness of your communication.
John Maxwell once said that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This principle is also applicable to communication. When you decide to put your thoughts and emotions aside momentarily, so that you can really hear what the other person is saying in their own words, you will communicate respect and love to the other person. Ideally this will be reciprocated and they will also take the time to hear and understand your perspective.
Often times we will get so caught up in arguing that we actually end up spinning our wheels in arguments. Throughout the conversation we pinball back and forth between many topics and accusations. When this happens nothing is accomplished and typically both people leave the conversation feeling frustrated.
John Gottman has taught several couples a technique for conversation called the “Speaker/Listener” Technique. In this technique individual’s alternate taking on the role of Speaker and Listener in order to allow for each person to be heard and understood.
1.) Both individuals will have an opportunity to be the “speaker” and be the “listener”. The speaker is the one who is trying to convey the message. They are responsible for communicating their thoughts, feelings, and desires. The listener is responsible for hearing and understanding what the speaker is saying.
2.) Only ONE person can be the speaker at a time. When the speaker is speaking the listener should refrain from interrupting the speaker. Interruptions can cause the individual to loose their train of thought and hinder the message the speaker is trying to communicate. Questions for clarification can be done once the speaker has finished speaking.
3.) You can only address one issue at a time. When using this technique it is important to stay on one specific issue. The deeper roots or meaning of the conversation can be drawn out through the conversation and there may be a broad stream of applications once the discussion has ended. However, during the conversation it is helpful to stay focused on one specific topic.
4.) When you are the “speaker” you share your viewpoints. When you are the speaker your job is to share your own view points. NOT to comment or infer the viewpoints or feelings of the other person. To do this you will want to use “I” statements.
5.) When you are the “Listener” you make sure that you are correctly understanding the message the speaker is trying to relay. Your job as the listener is to get acknowledgement from the speaker that you have accurately and completely understood what they are saying. This is different from simply saying “I understand”. What you are going for is for the speaker to identify that you, as the listener are understanding them.
1.) Keep your sentences and the amount of information your share at one time short. Use simple sentences, with concrete examples. Avoid exaggeration, mindreading, and generalizations. Try to share only 3 or 4 sentences before checking in for understanding.
2.) Use “I” statements. These statements identify specifically what you think, feel or experience. For example, “I feel hurt when you don’t discuss your day with me. It is important to me that we reflect on our days together.”
3.) Be specific. Give concrete example of behavior and what it is that is troublesome for you. Example: “For the past week you have gone directly to bed without talking to me.” Next, you could use the “I” statement from above.
4.) Check-in frequently to make sure your message is being accurately received. After you have shared 3 or 4 sentences ask for the listener to paraphrase what they have understood you to say.
1.) Wait for the speaker to stop speaking and then paraphrase what you have understood them to say including the emotion they are expressing. This is not the same as saying word for word what the other person has said, rather it is expressing the general meaning and/or emotion that the speaker shared. For example; “I am understanding that you are hurt by the fact that we have not had time to talk before going to bed.”
2.) After paraphrasing ask if you have understood the message correctly. Simply ask “Is that correct?” “Am I understanding you correctly?” By doing this you are allowing the speaker the opportunity to clarify their position or more accurately express their emotion, if you have misunderstood them in any way. If you have understood them correctly you are allowing them an opportunity to validate that you have in fact understood the message they were trying to communicate. If you have understood them correctly you then switch roles and repeat the process until both parties are satisfied that they have been adequately (although perhaps not perfectly ) understood by the other person.
3.) Pay attention to your own physical responses to the messages you are hearing. Make sure you are not engaging in any of the dangerous communication styles. (see article https://confidenthope.blog/2019/04/03/dangerous-communication/) If you find yourself engaging in dangerous communication you can always request a “time out”. (see article https://confidenthope.blog/?s=time+out)
Once both individuals are satisfied that the problem and needs have been identified you can then move on to the problem solving portion of the discussion.
1.) Share specifically what you would like the outcome to be. Example: “I would like for you to spend time with me before bed talking to me about your day and asking me about my day.” Then add how that could benefit both of you. “If you were to do that I would feel less lonely and we would be more connected and have a stronger relationship.” If both individuals are in agreement then the conversation can finish there.
2.) Brainstorming. Think of all possible solutions to your problem and write them down. Even write down solutions that seem unfeasible or undesirable. Write out the pros and cons of each solution. Together narrow the list down to viable options. In those options try to uncover common ground and win/win solutions.Try to determine which areas you already are both in agreement on and decide on solutions where both of you “win”.
3.) Compromise. Try to determine which areas you are willing to give up or let go of without jeopardizing your self respect, morals, or boundaries. There may be an area where you are able to practice being sacrificial out of love for the other person.
4.) Take a break. If there are no satisfactory options for a solution you can take some time to brainstorm some options, or take a break and come back to the conversation at a later date and try to share some new possible solutions.
Special note: When you try this technique out you may find it helpful to first start with a topic that is a topic that you do not feel very passionately about. As you get more skilled with the technique you can try it in other areas that are more emotionally charged for you and your partner. By choosing a topic with low emotional intensity you are allowing yourself the freedom to practice your skills as a speaker and as a listener. At first it may not seem like you are accomplishing much, but in reality you are learning the art of effective communication which will go a long way in enhancing all your relationships.
Why is being quick to listen and understand so hard? I assume it is because we want to fix things, to appear knowledgeable, to share our opinions and thoughts. It is easy to hear what someone else is saying or struggling with and quickly share our expertise. Unfortunately this often leads to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and arguments. In our haste to solve things we forget to listen to the details, the deeper meanings, and true underlying needs and fears. The bible often warns us to pay attention to our speech, it talks about the power of our words to bring healing and life, or destruction and death. We are encouraged to truly listen to others, to try to understand their perspective and their reasoning. This can be especially challenging if we have our own agenda and opinions. Sadly, when it comes to listening to understand we often fall short. We can’t seem to listen to the debate without jumping in and attacking the other side with our own reasons and truth supporting our own viewpoint. This does nothing to create peace nor does it bring justice, all it does is create anger, despair and division. In our quest to be understood, have things our own way or be “right” we can inadvertently push the other person aside and destroy our relationships. Jesus was a master communicator. I can imagine him lingering with people and listening to their stories. I can imagine him asking them questions that would draw them out of their shells and give a voice to what was happening in their hearts. I can imagine him listening to their pain and suffering without condemnation, then offering a perfect mixture of truth and grace which would ultimately bring hope, healing and solutions. One of the many examples is when Jesus was talking to Peter and asking him “Do you love me?”, and allowing Peter to ponder the rich meaning of the question. I can imagine Jesus took time with the conversation. He didn’t demand an apology. He didn’t rehash every detail of how Peter went wrong. He didn’t crush Peter with all the “facts” of why he should have listened to him. Instead, he allowed for clarification, for responses, for back and forth discussion, until the true meaning of what He was saying was clear to Peter. In this brief conversation you can see the elements of respect, restoration, and love. This should be our goal in our conversations; to leave others better then when we found them.
Guard my mouth. I often am quick to speak. I can unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally, say things that hurt other people. Sometimes I am so quick to share my thoughts and my answers that I forget to even take the time to figure out what the real issue is or I ignore the fact that the other person might have information that I do not have. Help me to value and respect all people. Give me the grace to listen. Teach me to hear what others are saying and to look for common ground. Allow me to share truth bravely and clearly without being mean spirited or hurtful. Uncover the motivations of my own heart, weed out anything that would get in the way of me being able to point others to you. Let my interactions be marked by truth, love and respect.
In Jesus Name, Amen
James 1:19 “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this, everyone should be slow to speak, quick to listen and slow to become angry,”
Proverbs 10:19 “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.”
Ephesians 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Proverbs 18:2 “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.”