The work-from-home era means that for many of us boundaries are blurred between personal life and work life, and though some enjoy the high level of integration, many of us struggle to switch from one role to another, and we find it difficult to focus.
All this means that if our interest is not piqued in a few seconds of a conversation, we simply switch off. Yet good listening is essential to any relationship and is especially important for couples who want their marriage to last and thrive. So, what is effective listening? And how do we become effective listeners in a talkative world?
What is effective listening?
Effective listening is known by how it makes the speaker feel. When someone has listened well, we feel better known and understood. The listener gave us their full attention and was not distracted by other people or electronic devices. The listener was able to draw us out, bring clarity to what we were trying to say, help us understand how we feel. Perhaps they were able to help us make connections that we didn’t see before.
An effective listener encourages honesty through a non-judgmental attitude and doesn’t rush to fill silences or give his or her own opinion and doesn’t try to match our experience with his or her own experience.
An effective listener carefully brings truth to the conversation and helps the speaker put things in perspective. Importantly, an effective listener doesn’t jump in with advice or unless specifically asked, and never gives pat answers. The result of effective listening is a stronger, deeper relationship.
How do we listen effectively?
To listen effectively, it is important to know why you are listening, to connect regularly, to give your full attention, to draw the other person out, and to check your understanding of what has been said with the other person. God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. But this does not happen most of the time.
Know your “why”
We must know our “why,” your reason or motivation for wanting to listen, is a crucial starting point. Without it, you’ll find it difficult to begin or sustain your connection.
For married couples, our “why” has to do with our wedding vows. Christian wedding vows are a binding covenant, a promise to love each other now and in the future, for better or for worse.
The vows are not promises to feel love, but to do love, i.e., serve one another, putting the other person first – whatever our feelings or circumstances may be at the time. It is always about the needs of the other and feeling before ourselves. When this mutual love happens both partners are nourished and heard.
Listening takes energy and discipline, it is not as easy as it seems to be. We are all imperfect sinners who fall short of God’s standards, and doing love can be very hard work, especially over the long term. However, by God’s incredible grace, Jesus triumphed over sin at the cross, and now as new creations, we are empowered to be increasingly unselfish through the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, we listen to each other because we have vowed to love one another through thick and thin. We listen to each other because we want our marriage to survive and thrive. We listen because we desire to be known and loved by our spouses and know and love them in return. These are strong motivations for listening, even when we feel spent or just not in the mood.
What if your spouse isn’t doing his or her part? Is effective listening – and a thriving marriage – impossible? It is hard to keep loving and serving a self-centered or uninterested spouse. You may feel quite alone and hopeless in the marriage, and resentful that you’re doing all the work in the relationship.
All marriages can feel one-sided at times, and even for whole seasons. But be encouraged that God knows us perfectly – our flaws and sins are not hidden from Him – yet he loves us fully. This is a critical truth in marriage because trusting in God’s love fuels us to be able to love and listen to our (imperfect) spouse in a comparable way, even if he or she is not loving us back or listening to us in return.
Keep praying for the Lord to soften your spouse’s heart and pray for your own heart to persist in doing good to your spouse. Listening effectively to your spouse is surprisingly powerful in softening his or her heart and leading him or her to have more concern for your marriage.
While for some relationships, e.g., friendships, listening can still be effective even if the meetings are sporadic, effective listening for married couples needs to be a regular occurrence. Make it a priority to find a time each day to connect. Regular connection is a chance to give each other insight into your lives and allow you to talk through concerns or grievances before they fester.
Don’t be tempted to make excuses that you are just too busy or too tired to chat. Your marriage is your most important human-to-human relationship and deserves time and attention, and it is quite easy for couples to lose connection if you’re not in the habit of talking regularly.
Give your full attention
In today’s world, your attention is possibly the most valuable thing you have to give. Put your smartphone away. Keep your kids occupied, or talk while they’re sleeping, or even get a babysitter if you need longer time together. If they’re old enough, explain to them that mommy and daddy need time to talk together – this models’ good habits for their own marriages one day.
Start and end your conversation with your spouse with physical affection that you are both comfortable with. Make regular eye contact. Be aware of your facial expressions and body language – are they relaxed and inviting, or irritable and impatient? Would you want to talk to you right now?
Draw the other person out
To start the conversation, ask gentle open-ended questions that don’t result in a one-word answer, to encourage your spouse to share his or her thoughts. For example, instead of asking “Did you have a good day?” perhaps say “Tell me about your day.” If your spouse has fallen silent, ask him or her to tell you more, or ask how he or she is feeling about the situation.
Don’t only stick to the practical aspects of life, but also ask big questions that encourage your spouse to talk about his or her character, dreams, life purpose, or spiritual life. Remember the objective, remember your motivation for listening – to know and love your spouse better.
Check your understanding with the other person
Once your spouse has finished speaking and you have drawn them out with follow-on questions, it is good practice to feedback with a summary of what you think your spouse has said and meant. This shows that you care and that you’ve been listening carefully and might help to correct any assumptions or misunderstandings you might have made.
How counseling can help with effective listening
If you are battling to connect with your spouse, or are eager to improve your communication in marriage, seeing a Christian counselor together can be helpful. A good counselor will be an effective listener, and by paying attention to how he or she facilitates the sessions, both you and your spouse can learn to replicate this at home.
A Christian counselor will share your “why” and will help you to apply the gospel to the way you listen to and love each other and connect you to specific scripture to encourage you in your context. Finally, a Christian counselor will also pray with you, and help to gently mediate between you and your spouse where there is conflict and turn it into a constructive time of growth for your marriage.
“Hand-in-hand”, Courtesy of Hanna Morris, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Walking Through Town”, Courtesy of Tim Mossholder, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Cuddling Couple”, Courtesy of Hannah Busing, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Snuggling Couple”, Courtesy of Lauren Richmond, Unsplash.com, CC0 License