Years ago I was driving through Chattanooga, Tennessee listening to one of my favorite preachers, Adrian Rogers. He was telling a story about him and his wife when they had a disagreement.
In the middle of their “discussion” Joyce, his wife, said, “Adrian, I’m not going to argue with you because you are better with words than I am”. The moment he said that my heart was pierced because I could imagine Paula say the same thing to me.
“Rick, I can’t express myself as good as you can!” I heard a version of this more than once.
I’m not inferring that she can’t communicate well or has a shallow vocabulary. Rather that we communicate differently and often that involves the words we choose. The goal of communication isn’t to win a debate, but to understand what the other is saying and how they feel.
Unfortunately, this is more difficult for men than women. Men are oriented in communication toward being right, reaching a conclusion and worse, “winning” by getting complete agreement to your perspective. With other men this isn’t as bad, but it is destructive in a marriage. Debating doesn’t build a healthy relationship in marriage.
As I drove home from Chattanooga for the next 100 miles God began to deal with me about how I spoke and communicated to Paula. It wasn’t so much that I would try to drown her out with the strength of an argument, but that sometimes I would miss the point of what she was saying because of how she used a term. (I feel so vulnerable sharing this and hope you will have mercy on me).
Stupidly, I would ignore her heartfelt intention because she didn’t express it the way I would have. It certainly didn’t help us communicate well and it didn’t build intimacy.
Here’s the regret I have – I wish I hadn’t tried to pick apart her use of words in a conversation, especially when we disagreed. Though I was sincere in wanting to be precise I missed the spirit of what she was saying which caused me to miss the essence of what she was saying.
Typically women not only speak with their intellect, but also through an emotional lens, much more than men do. When a man doesn’t understand this uniqueness there will be frustration as his wife talks; when this happens he is angry and listening is non-existent. And though words are spoken there is no communication.
I read and write a lot and use a breadth of words in my calling as a pastor in communicating God’s Word. When a word or expression has a different meaning, even subtly, it gives the entire situation a different spin. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter; it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”.
Twain’s words are helpful when you’re teaching or writing, but it’s not a good way to understand what others are saying as they share their heart.
I caused unnecessary stress in our relationship because I would listen to the construction of her sentences and missed the message behind them. I was trying to get Paula to use “my dictionary” for her words and I missed the bigger issue – her perspective, her viewpoint and her heart.
It has taken me a while to learn to simply be quiet and not interrupt when she is explaining something. (Read that last sentence; it is gold, especially for me). My immediate response when she shares a problem is to advise her on the issue and help to come to a solution. I am learning that when Paula is talking to me sometimes she wants me to just hear the way she feels; she wants to know that she has been heard.
Here’s something simple that has helped me enormously in this area. After Paula expresses a need and I sense there is some emotion behind it I respond, “Do you want me to listen or do you want advice?” Many times she will say, “I want you to listen”.
Another practice that has helped me when she shares an issue is to put aside what I am working on and look at her in the eyes, giving my full attention. G.K. Chesterton said, “There’s a lot of difference between hearing and listening”. Listening requires attentiveness.
Sometimes I’m the one who needs a listening ear. I have a chronic illness that has some debilitating symptoms and I try hard to not complain and be negative. Because Paula and I spend so much time together, invariably I will mention one of the difficulties to her. And there are occasions when I hurt so much that I pour my heart out to her.
In those times I don’t need an analyst to parse my words, but a compassionate and kind listening ear. When she provides that for me I am drawn closer to her. I want to do the same.
It’s been a journey for me to learn how to treat Paula properly and how to communicate more effectively, I’m a slow study. Through God’s help and grace I’m learning to not have to fix everything or to deconstruct her words when she is speaking from her heart.
George Eliot’s says this better than I have.
“Oh, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away”.
Here are some truths that have helped me to pause before I speak and become a better listener.
- There is a relationship between failing to listen and being given to anger – “… let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…” (James 1:19)
- Words need to be considered and weighed before spoken – “The heart of the righteous studieth to answer…” (Proverbs 15:28)
- God will help help guard my words if I ask Him to do so – “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)