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Three habits that will get you back in touch with each other

"What do you think?" Leslie was twirling in the middle of our tiny apartment modeling her new dress. We'd been married less than a week.

"It's good," I responded. "Let's go then. I'm starving."

Leslie's reaction was the first indicator that my wife and I didn't speak the same language.

"It's good? That's all you can say?" Leslie asked.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.


"Let's go."

"I'm going to change."

Five minutes later I heard weeping from the bedroom, where I found Leslie curled up on the bed. Both of us wondered what had just happened. I was bewildered. Leslie was hurt.

It's no surprise that the number-one marriage problem couples report is "a breakdown in communication." But it's a problem that needs to be addressed, since a marriage's success depends on how well partners send and receive messages—and on how well they listen to each other.

Watch Your Pronouns

Think back to English class when the discussion centered on first- and second-person pronouns. Then, when you talk to your spouse, use the first-person pronoun ("I") since the second-person "you" will almost always lead to trouble. Here's why.

When you're upset with your partner or feel you've been wronged, your natural tendency is to attack: "You are so insensitive! Don't you ever think about how I might feel about things?" "You" statements make your partner feel accused, blamed and criticized. And it's highly unlikely he or she will say, "You know, you're exactly right. I really am an insensitive lout." Rather, his or her natural reaction will be to mount a defense: "You are the one who is insensitive. Did you ever consider the pressure I'm under right now?" Exchanging "you" statements is a sure-fire way to spoil an evening.

In contrast, "I" statements dispense clear information and are much more likely to elicit caring concern from your partner. They allow you to express your feeling of being hurt or neglected without judging your mate's behavior. So the next time you feel your mate is ignoring your input, don't level an accusation by using "you." Instead, tear down relational barriers by using the first-person pronoun: "I feel hurt and neglected when you don't ask my opinion."

Use Your Ears

A sage once said the Lord gave us two ears and one mouth and that ratio should tell us something about the importance of listening. We often equate good communication skills with learning to express ourselves more clearly. But 98 percent of good communication involves is listening.

Effective listening can be difficult to learn because in situations where it is needed most, we are usually more focused on what we are going to say next than we are on listening to the message being sent. Consider this typical husband/wife interaction.

Wife: "Look at this. I just got back from the cleaners and there is a gray stain all over this collar. What am I going to do? I planned to wear this dress tonight."

Husband: "Oh, Honey, I don't think anyone would even notice it. Besides, you could wear your yellow dress instead. It looks great."

This husband is trying to be helpful, but he's overlooking a crucial element: he forgot to listen. He's more concerned with solving his wife's problem than with understanding her emotions. If he had listened, he could have made his wife feel heard and understood: "I'm so sorry, I'd be furious too" or "I can't imagine how disappointed you are."

The point of reflective listening is to let your partner know that you heard what he or she said and understood the message behind the words. By the way, reflective listening is a wonderful way to defuse a potential conflict. If your partner starts accusing you with "You're always late," don't respond with "I am not!" Instead, say "I know it upsets you when I'm late. It's got to be exasperating." Listen for the message underlying your mate's words. "You are always late" means "I'm upset."

When we teach reflective listening, many couples object on the basis that it feels awkward and sounds phony. That's usually an indication that listening is not grounded in a genuine desire to understand your mate. So make sure your listening comes from the heart. If you truly care, then what you reflect back to your partner will not be mechanical. Like any new skill, it may feel awkward at first. But when you begin to experience the difference it makes in your marriage, the awkward feeling will quickly fade.

Label Your Next Talk

When My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins cries out, "Why can't a woman be more like a man," we all know he's not talking about anatomy. He is an expert in languages and has taught Eliza how to speak "proper" English, but he still can't communicate with her.

Professor Higgins is not alone. At one time or another we've all despaired of ever "getting through" to the opposite sex. To overcome gender-related communication differences, we must accept each other's uniqueness and change our expectations.

Men and women use conversation for different purposes. Women talk to others primarily to form and solidify relationships, while men tend to use words to navigate their way within the hierarchy. They do so by communicating their knowledge and skill, imparting information.

Women excel at what linguist Deborah Tannen calls "rapport talk." Men feel most comfortable with "report talk." Even though women may have more confidence in verbal ability (aptitude tests prove their superior skill), they are less likely to use that ability in a public context. Men feel comfortable giving reports to groups or interrupting a speaker with an objection—these are skills learned in the male hierarchy. For example, at a party the men tell stories, share their expertise and tell jokes while the women usually converse in smaller groups about more personal subjects. They are busy connecting while the men are positioning themselves.

Couples work hard at talking, but 98 percent of good communication involves listening.

How does this relate to communicating with your mate? It comes down to this: conversationally speaking, women share feelings and men solve problems. Once this distinction is understood, an easy solution can be applied. Simply label the type of conversation you want to have and ask your partner to join you. Just because men have a tendency to solve problems and women have a tendency to share feelings doesn't mean that each isn't capable of operating in the other mode. Here's how the conversation could proceed.

Wife: "You wouldn't believe the amount of work my boss is giving me." (She's expressing frustration and hoping for understanding.)

Husband: "Honey, I keep telling you to talk to him about that." (He's offering a solution.)

Wife: "I know, but I'd like to have a 'feelings conversation' right now. I just need to get this out."

Husband: "Okay, tell me about it."

At that point she can relate the incident, and he can listen to her feelings, reflecting them back to her from time to time. When you realize the two of you are in different modes, labeling a conversation "feeling-talk" or "problem-talk" works magic.

Remember to use "I" instead of "you," practice reflective listening and label your next conversation mode so you both know if it's feelings-oriented or solution-oriented. You'll soon find that the formerly problematic "breakdown in communication" has turned into the best thing you've ever done to draw closer together.

Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates and Relationships (all published by Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.

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

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Communication; Connecting; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Fall, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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