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Are You Saying ... ?

Make sure you hear what your spouse really means.

The placard read: "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

I read it and smiled, because I've been there. Communication is never as easy as it seems. My most recent misunderstanding was about a skirt! My wife and I were staying in a hotel, and early one morning I headed for the shower when I heard my wife say, "Honey, please hang my skirt on the back of the door."

"Sure," I responded. I took her skirt and hung it on the rack in the closet with the rest of our clothes. That mission accomplished, I proceeded with my shower.

Later when my wife entered the bathroom she said, "Gary, you missed the whole point!"

"What point?"

"My skirt."

"No, I hung it out with the rest of your clothes so it wouldn't get wet!"

She sighed. "I told you to put it on the back of the door. I wanted the steam to take out the wrinkles."

"Oh!" Now I understood what she meant.

It was true that she said, "Hang my skirt on the back of the door." But I heard, "Please get my skirt out of the bathroom so it won't get wet."

Trying to be a loving husband, I honored what I thought was her request!

I'm sure my wife was wondering, How long will it take for my husband to understand that what I say is what I mean!

It's a fact of life: sometimes we mean what we say and become upset if people don't take our statements literally. But then sometimes we don't mean our words literally and don't understand why people can't read our minds. Is it possible to prevent such misunderstandings? We usually can when we practice the art of clarifying.

While clarifying isn't difficult, it does require time and thought. Because each of us has unique thought processes, vocabulary, and patterns of expression, we cannot assume that what we hear is really what's in our spouse's mind.

The most common method of clarifying is "reflective listening." You listen to what your mate says and then tell him what you heard, giving him a chance to clarify. For example, if I'd said to Karolyn, "Are you saying you want me to get your skirt out of the bathroom so it won't get wet?" she would have said, "No, I want you to hang it on the back of the door so the steam will take out the wrinkles." Clear communication accomplished!

Clarification helps us make meaningful and supportive responses.

Clarifying questions can take many forms:

"Are you saying … ?"

"What I hear you saying is …"

"Does that mean … ?"

"Let me make sure I understand you."

"It's really important to me that I understand what you mean. Could you say that another way?"

The Bible encourages us to practice clarifying: "He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame" (Proverbs 18:13); "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak" (James 1:19). There cannot be clear communication without real listening. Real listening is more than remaining quiet while your spouse talks. It requires giving the attention necessary to hear what is said, and then seeking to clarify what your spouse really means.

Misunderstandings sometimes cause intense emotional pain. "I think we need to get on a diet" is what he said. "He thinks I'm fat and ugly" is what she heard.

"I wish you wouldn't drive so fast" might be her attempt to keep him from getting a ticket. What he heard was, "She thinks I'm irresponsible, so she has to be my mother."

Neither understood what the other meant, and their misinterpretation caused pain and resentment for days. Their intimacy has been diminished by lack of clarity. Taking time to clarify your spouse's meaning can heal an emotional infection before it becomes serious.

Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D., a marriage and relationship expert, is best-selling author of The Five Love Languages (Moody) and Covenant Marriage (Broadman & Holman).


Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Communication; Conversation; Listening; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2005
Posted September 12, 2008

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