The first year of marriage was tough for my wife and me. Before we got married, we talked about everything we thought was important. We shared our goals, our ideas, our faith, and whatever else we could. But the details of marriage aren’t in 10-year plans. They’re in our daily habits.
We discovered behaviors in the other that we didn’t know about when we dated. Each of us had unspoken expectations about how our household would run, or who would be responsible for what tasks. Simple things. When I come home, I leave a wake of stuff behind me. Coat, shoes, keys, I set them down wherever, but my wife likes a neat house. We spent at least a year hashing out our newly discovered conflicts.
I wasn’t very good at dealing with it, either. I avoided conflict with everything I had. I tried to bottle it up, but we all know that never works. Eventually, I’d explode over some small problem without dealing with the issue at hand.
I had another go-to for miscommunication. When my wife and I needed to discuss a problem, I’d focus on the logistics of figuring out a solution, but she’d need to talk about emotions. I was completely oblivious to her need to communicate how she felt, figuring that fixing the problem would make the argument go away. It never did. Over the years, we’ve discovered a lot about how to communicate better. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
Listen to understand, not to respond
Listening is the most important skill for improving communication. Most of us don’t really listen to other people when they talk. We just wait until we have the chance to respond. That’s a good way to escalate a miscommunication into a fight. When you talk with someone you care about, show the person you care about what is being said and how it’s being said.
Empathic listening shows the speaker that you care about and understand what they say and how they feel. It builds trust, shows that you care, and helps to calm someone when emotional fires are burning hot.
Here’s how it works:
- Give the speaker your undivided attention
- Listen to the content of the conversation
- Observe the speaker’s emotions
- Summarize both the content and the emotions to the speaker
It can be awkward at first. When I first tried using empathic listening with my wife, she thought I was being fake, because I spoke like I was reading out of a psychology textbook. But even my awkward attempts helped. Since I’ve become better at it, empathic listening is a part of my regular conversation.
While I love the many ways we have to communicate with each other today, there still is no replacement for face-to-face communication. Electronic communication is particularly bad when you’re arguing. You can’t hear a person’s tone, read body language, or see expressions, and a sad-face emoji can’t express how you really feel in a meaningful way. When you talk through conflict face-to-face, you see the person you care about, so you both can be more empathetic and understanding than you might from a distance. Instead of sending rapid-fire texts, the next time you need to hash something out, do it face-to-face.
Put down your phone
We spend a lot of time with our eyes glued to our devices, even when we’re with the people we care about most. More and more studies show us that smartphone usage correlates with social anxiety and feelings of loneliness. When we feel anxious or alone, we’re much less likely to communicate well with our significant other. The Gottman Institute finds that people who frequently ignore each other’s bids for attention are much more likely to break up and their marriages more likely to end in divorce. When we respond positively to someone’s bid for attention, this small habit can build a bond over time, helping communication even in conflict.
My wife and I intentionally set aside mealtimes so we can talk together. We don’t answer phones or look at texts. We eat, talk, and spend quality time with each other. These simple interactions help us when we’re arguing. They build intimacy and trust, so you can rely on them when you disagree.
Originally published on September 14, 2018.