I Hear You (I think). Are We Listening?

Dan McHugh picture

Have you ever played the game “Telephone”? One person whispers a short story or sentence one time to another person, then that person whispers it to another, and so on until the last person states aloud what he or she heard. During the process, pretty much everything in the story changes. Why does this happen? It is because communication is a very complex and interactive process.

That’s Not What I Said

During the game, people try to hear a story or phrase and remember it correctly to repeat what was said, and it still gets all messed up. During a communications class I had in college, 10 selected participants left the room except for the first participant. The professor told a short story out loud in front of the class to the first person. Then, one by one, the participants entered the room to hear the story repeated by the previous participant. The class took notes as they observed silently. Then they reported on what they observed, and the results were enlightening. Here are some things that happened:

  • A lot of details were forgotten and omitted.
  • Many words and details were misheard and changed (names of people and places, actions)
  • Some participants repeated the story in a word-for-word manner–at least as much as they remembered.
  • Most participants paraphrased some content until the final statement did not resemble the initial statement.
  • Elements of the story were placed in a different context than in the original story.
  • Some “new” details were added to fill in “missing” elements.
  • Emotional content was added, discarded, or distorted.
  • Listeners became frustrated and perplexed when hearing parts of the story that no longer made sense. Sometimes their frustration was directed at the speaker.
  • A speaker was sometimes defensive when the hearer became frustrated.

The participants noted that they wished they had the opportunity to interact, ask and answer questions, and repeat the story. But the story would still have inevitably been changed after passing it through 10 people.

You’re Not Listening

Now imagine that a couple is arguing and each partner is emotional and driven to get his or her point across or to convince the other that he or she is “right”. The same things happen as above, but there is no longer a focus to be sure that the speaker was heard or understood correctly. Also, the cost of miscommunication is much greater, because a close relationship is involved. The Bible tells us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19b-20). It is clear that the author intends for us to not just hear with our ears but to listen for understanding. Yet we spend our listening time with our partners thinking of how we are going to respond rather than checking to be sure we’ve captured their thoughts and feelings correctly, or we just interrupt them before they’ve even finished. And research (and common sense) show that strong emotions (defensiveness, anger, hurt, etc.) greatly impair our ability to listen effectively.

Many of us have had training in speaking and presenting, but we spend less than 10% of our communication as a speaker. The other 90+% of the time we are listening (to individuals 1 on 1 or in groups, in classes, to various media, sermons, etc).  Yet we receive little training in how to effectively listen. This lack of listener training is disconcerting, especially in light of the Scriptural command to be “quick to hear”. It has great impact in all of our relationships, notably in marriage.

So then, how do we learn to listen to each other? We do not come to know God and understand His ways by casually “hearing” His Word, but by “listening” to understand it (and follow it). Likewise, we cannot know our spouses by simply hearing them but by listening to understand them. Here are a few steps and tips when you want to have an important conversation:

  1. Remove distractions. Turn off the TV. Get away from the kids.
  2. Adopt a positive listening attitude and commit to not being defensive. Listen for your partner’s benefit, not for your own.
  3. Pretend you have to understand your spouse to pass a test that they will grade.
  4. If you are very angry or hurt, and finding it too difficult to really understand what the other is saying or experiencing, take a break to cool down first. Use 3 basic rules when calling a timeout: (1) call it for yourself, not for another, (2) state when you feel you can re-engage to talk about the issue so the other person knows you’re not just avoiding it, and (3) use the timeout period constructively—to cool down, identify your emotions underlying your anger, and to submit to Christ and to walking in the Spirit before proceeding.
  5. If you intend to discuss emotional matters that may require a “time-out”, avoid doing this in “no-escape” places such as riding in the car.
  6. Don’t switch from listener to speaker until the speaker confirms that the listener has understood.
  7. Listen to understand, not to respond. Often times, if you get this right, you won’t even have to respond in order to resolve an issue. If you are thinking of how to respond, you have stopped listening to understand. Listening to understand is called Active Listening, because it will have various active elements:
    • Repeating or paraphrasing back to your spouse what you heard them say, and asking if you got it right.
    • Asking for examples, clarifications, or more specific details if needed, especially if they are speaking in general terms.
    • Reflecting feelings that you heard to see if you got them right. (*Note- a list of feeling words can help here—see the Acknowledged Emotions are Good Emotions blog by Kristin Barnes Brown on this website for examples of “feeling words”.)
    • Avoiding destructive verbal or non-verbal responses such as: a critical tone,  defensiveness (excuses, blaming, explanations), rolling eyes, sighing, sarcasm, etc., regardless of what the speaker is doing or saying.
    • Hearing a person out fully before you respond—let them finish, reflect what they’ve said, and let them confirm you have heard them.
  8. Practice!! You can even have fun on a date night by practicing with non-emotional content. See how good you are by asking your spouse to tell you if they are satisfied that you’ve heard them correctly and understood them.

Practice Listening

Listening actively and accurately is hard work, especially when you are learning to do it well! Doing it right may seem stilted and awkward if you are not doing these things at present. Don’t get discouraged if you flunk a few times before catching on, or if you struggle to refrain from being defensive or responding too quickly. Keep practicing. I believe that effective listening is the body of resolving issues, and the “fix” is just the skin on top.

There are things that a speaker can do to make it easier for the listener, but that will be the subject of another blog. We tend to think that we are naturally experienced and good at listening, because we can never turn off our ears and stop hearing. But listening is a skill that takes practice, commitment, and a healthy self-concept among other things. Listening is also a skill that reaps great rewards of intimacy, respect, healing, affirmation, and love.