This video segment is one of six lessons in the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication” seminar.
The GCM series are marriage preparation and marriage enrichment level resources. If your marriage needs restoration level care consider one of the other options available at summitchurch.com/counseling, or visit bradhambrick.com/findacounselor for help finding a counselor near you.
If you are interested in the pre-marital mentoring program built around these materials, you can find everything you need at www.bradhambrick.com/gcm.
NOTE: Many people have asked how they can get a copy of the GCM seminar notebooks. You can request a copy from Summit’s admin over counseling at firstname.lastname@example.org (please note this is an administrative account; no individual or family counsel is provided through e-mail).
We often miss the power of ordinary things. Being at a little league game doesn’t seem like a big deal until you hear an adult lament, “My father never came to any of my games.” When we look back at the people who most shaped our lives, it was usually because of their presence and care in ordinary moments rather than great actions or profound words. Listening is another common thing which often has a power that few people recognize.
As infants and children, all we got to do (or so it seemed at the time) was “listen to big people,” so we tend to view speaking as the mature, powerful, and significant part of communication. That can lead us to think listening is for the weak or immature person who lacks influence in a relationship. If we applied this same childhood logic to nutrition, we would think that eating fruits and vegetables was a sign of weakness.
Here is the main premise of this lesson – the vast majority of communication problems are listening problems, not expression problems. If we learned to listen well during difficult conversations, we might reduce the number of “disagreements” that become “arguments” by 80%. But we also have to admit, listening is a skill that is most difficult when it is most necessary.Listening is a skill that is most difficult when it is most necessary. Click To Tweet
5 Habits of Ineffective Listening
Not all silence is listening. Not all questions invite, or even want, an answer. There is such a thing as bad listening. The way we listen can both negatively influence what is being said and distort what we hear. We need to be aware of how our listening effects our spouse’s/fiancé’s communication and our interpretation of what they say.
Interrupting says that my thoughts are more important than your thoughts; or I’d rather risk you forgetting what you’re trying to say than me forgetting what I want to say. Interrupting implies that I know what you’re about to say and it needs to be changed. If interrupting is a habit of yours, memorize Philippians 2:1-5. Use it as the basis of confession and focus upon how listening is a key form of loving your spouse as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25).
2. Premature Advice
Giving premature advice communicates that your spouse is a problem to be solved instead of a person to be heard. Giving premature advice reveals that you are listening to respond (self-centeredly) rather than listening to understand (other-mindedly). As a general rule, hold off on giving advice until you are asked a direct question for guidance.
This is bad listening by faux-comfort that assumes your spouse/fiancé is over-reacting. Often, however, our spouse will not be over-reacting. We simply do not know the situation well enough to understand their response. In these cases, minimizing is dismissive and erodes trust in your judgment. Give the benefit of the doubt until there is evidence to the contrary. This is a direct biblical application of love – “[love] believes all things (I Cor. 13:7 NASB).”
4. Fear Filtering
We tend to hear/see first what we fear most. This radically impacts how we listen, especially in difficult conversations. If you fear snakes, then when you walk in the woods every crooked stick is a serpent until proven otherwise. If you fear failure, rejection, disrespect or something else, then these things will be what you naturally hear during conflict. This is the primary reason we personalize what is not personal. In light of this, reflect on the implication from this on how you understand Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
5. Bad Questions
Yes, there is such a thing as a bad question. We can ask questions to make people feel stupid (i.e., What made you think that was a good idea?), to trap people or make them feel mean (i.e., Do you think I do this [referring to a sin or foolish choice] because I think it’s fun?), or to end a discussion (i.e., Why would you think anything else?). These kinds of bad questions give the façade of listening; after all, questions mean I want to hear from you, right? Bad questions are worse than normal ineffective listening, they are a primary form of manipulation. If you are guilty of this form of bad listening, you are sinning against your spouse/fiancé in a way that silences him/her and undermines the trust that is essential for a healthy marriage.
From these examples you should realize that it takes humility and courage to listen well. Listening well requires accepting that you are not in control of the conversation, that you may not know how to respond, that there are significant things you don’t know, and that other people are worth being heard. It takes a person of character to listen well.
5 Types of Listening
“Are you a good listener?” is a question like, “Are you a good student?” The answer is usually, “It depends.” In school it often depends on the subject. With listening it depends on the type of listening required. Some careers allow us to specialize in one or two forms of listening and excel with those skills. Marriage, however, is a relationship that requires the willingness to engage in all types of listening for the relationship to flourish.
What is being said? Comprehension is the do-not-pass-go question of listening. But it is amazing how frequently we overlook the necessity of comprehending. Ensuring that we understand what has been said is the essence of being “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19). There are many reflective listening and restatement skills to help with comprehension, but they basically boil down to two questions: (1) Do you see the value of understanding before speaking? (2) Are you willing to spend some of your “airtime” speaking to verify that you understand?
What is good about the speaker or message? Appreciation fuels the patience of listening. To listen to someone is to affirm the value you place on the relationship. One of the ways that we train our thoughts to focus upon those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise is by how we listen. If we listen with the filter “what is wrong or in need of correction?” we will struggle to have a Philippians 4:8 thought life. As we listen, we should search for things to affirm. Appreciative listening should be verbalized in the form of affirmation, “I really like the point you’re making [summarize],” or “It is helpful to understand [blank].”
What is the emotion in the speaker or message? Empathy is the most bonding aspect of listening. It displays a willingness to enter your spouse’s world. Notice how Paul relationally engaged with people, “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves because you had become so dear to us (1 Thes. 2:8).” Elsewhere Paul says we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).” These verses capture empathetic listening.
What is accurate or most important in what is being said? Discernment emotionally (not physically) steps away from the speaker and message in order to gain a more objective perspective. For this reason, discerning listening should be preceded by appreciative or empathizing listening – that is what it means to “give the benefit of the doubt.” Without the bonding forms of listening, discerning listening creates a sense of distance. Consistently resorting to discerning listening is an indication that the marriage lacks a strong foundation of shared values, purpose, or trust.
What is the appropriate response to the speaker or message? Evaluation is focused upon action more than understanding. This kind of listening often gets a bad rap because of people who exclusively use a “fix it” mentality when listening. Evaluating is the appropriate final stage of listening in many (not all) conversations. Premature evaluating is a form of pride (believing I know all I need to know) that devalues the relationship. The absence of considering the appropriate response is a form of passivity. The marker that evaluating is the appropriate style of listening in most conversation is usually a pause, a change from sharing to asking, or articulating a decision that needs to be made.
7 Skills to Listen Well
We are often poor listeners because we think of listening as merely hearing and retaining information. In a day of information overload, the significance of listening is easy to overlook. Consider this expanded definition of listening – listening is how you enter the world of another person. Listening is incarnational.Listening is how you enter the world of another person. Listening is incarnational. Click To Tweet
The main skill in being a good listener is wanting to be a good listener. The core of listening is placing enough value on the other person and what he/she is saying that you quit playing your thoughts (mentally or verbally) over theirs. When you begin to do this, you will find that your responses and body language almost always draw out the other person.
1. Show and Maintain Interest
Some conversations are interesting because of their subject. This makes effective listening much more natural. However, there are times when our interest is given because of the value we place on the relationship instead of the subject. Our posture in marriage should be, “If it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to me.”
2. Honor through Body Language
Most indicators of interest are non-verbal: eye contact, pleasant facial expressions, nodding your head, leaning forward, facing the speaker, relaxed shoulders, unfolded arms, and removing distractions (i.e., checking your phone). When we fail to honor our spouse through body language, we create a temptation for them to increase the “force” of their speaking in order to gain our attention. If the conversation becomes a disagreement, our lack of honor through body language increased the “temperature” at which the disagreement begins.
3. Glean Purpose before Content
Words serve a purpose. If your spouse is afraid and you debate the accuracy of his/her descriptions, then you are missing their purpose in talking; likely increasing their fear which will be expressed as anger. Begin with the question, “Why is my spouse talking?” instead of “What is my spouse saying?” Once you know your spouse’s purpose for speaking it will help you utilize the appropriate type of listening to love them well.
4. Clarify Confusing Points
Often a confused expression or tilted head is enough to request clarification. Good clarifying questions assume that there is a good answer for what doesn’t make sense yet. For example, it is better to ask, “How do [assumes there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” than “How can [expressing skepticism] those two points fit together?” Times of confusion tend to be critical junctures where grace leaves communication.
5. Summarize Information
Summarize the key points or experiences your spouse has shared before giving a response. This ensures that your response matches what your spouse was sharing. It also clarifies whether your response is to a part or the whole of what your spouse said. When we fail to summarize what we’ve heard, it is common for our partial perspectives to come across as an over-generalization. Each time the speaking-listening roles change is a moment when trust is either gained or lost. A 30-second summary at these exchanges often saves many 30–minute (or longer) arguments.
6. Listen Like You’re Taking a Prayer Request
Many people wonder, “How do I know if I have listened well?” Here is a good litmus test – could you pray for your spouse/fiancé about this topic of conversation in a way that he/she felt like accurately represented him/her to God? God may use you to answer the prayer you would pray and, if He chooses to do so, the time you took to understand your spouse’s concern will make you a much more fit instrument in His hand. Until you can represent your spouse’s concern in prayer you haven’t listened well.
7. If You Don’t Know What to Say, Ask More Questions
Often the pressure to know what to say is what prevents us from listening well. We become like the person who so badly wants to sleep that his desire to sleep prevents him from sleeping. Listening is best done when we’re relaxed (otherwise our fears focus our attention on ourselves instead of our spouse). Giving yourself the freedom to merely ask another question, if you don’t know what to say, can often be the thing that makes the implementation of these other skills possible.
Listening goes on the list of things that aren’t complicated but are difficult. Most of the things on this list share one thing in common – they require dying to self in order to love God and love others well.
Chances are you were not blown away by any of the practical advice in this chapter. That should be both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging to know that the most relationally inept person can listen well. It is discouraging to realize that most often the only excuse for not listening well is the neglect of social basics.
In order to listen well, we need something that can motivate us to die to ourselves without simultaneously causing us to cave back in on ourselves through self-pity or martyrdom. There is only one person (Jesus Christ) with one message (the gospel) who can accomplish these twin tasks. The more we rely on what Christ did for us and treasure the gospel, the more naturally we will treat others as God has treated us, which is to invite us to “pray without ceasing” (I Thes. 5:17); eager listening.
Questions for Lesson 2
When studying this lesson as a small group it is recommended that: (a) each participant read the lesson during the week, (b) watch the 15 minute lesson as a group, and then (c) discuss the following questions:
- If you had to guess, what percentage of your relational conflicts would be resolved if you and the other person listened more skillfully and with a good attitude?
- How does the idea of listening being incarnational help you connect the idea of being Christ-like with the practice of listening in new ways?
- Which of the ineffective listening habits are you most prone to use?
- Which of the five types of listening are most/least natural to you? Which are most meaningful to your spouse/fiancé?
- Which of the seven skills of listening would make the biggest difference in how you communicate?
- Are you more encouraged or discouraged by the implication of “listening isn’t complicated but is difficult”? How does this change the way you think about tense communication episodes?
- In light of this lesson, what changes do you need to begin making to experience more of what God intended marriage to be?