True listening requires you to be fully present — clearly and intentionally focused on your spouse. Intent focus shows that your whole heart, soul, mind and body are present.
Arthur had recently lost his wife of 50 years. To no one’s surprise, he was so heartbroken that he couldn’t do anything. He had lost the will to live. One day a neighbor’s young daughter saw how sad Arthur looked, just sitting on the porch staring out into space. She quickly ran over to visit him.
Arthur was delighted and told the girl’s family that she had touched his heart and revived his will to live.
“What did she say?” her parents asked, intrigued.
“Nothing,” Arthur explained. “She just sat with me.”
To truly listen is one of the greatest gifts that we can give someone. James 1:19 encourages us to focus on listening: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The first step toward the deepest levels of intimacy within your communication is to do what this young girl modeled — be present.
My favorite word picture of this idea is the Chinese character that represents “to listen,” which is made up of four separate characters: “eyes,” “ear,” “undivided attention” and “open heart.” This perfectly captures the essence of being present. It reminds us of what St. Benedict wrote: “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.” Beyond just using our ears, it expands the definition of listening to mean something that we do with our whole body. It’s so important, when we listen to our spouse, that we use our eyes, ears, attention and open heart. That is the difference between simply hearing and truly listening.
True listening requires you to be fully present — clearly and intentionally focused on your spouse. Intent focus shows that your whole heart, soul, mind and body are present, saying that there is nothing else more important in this moment. You must give complete attention to your spouse, as well, if you want him or her to feel safe and open his or her heart. Your spouse will know you are listening when you:
• turn toward him or her and give eye contact
• offer your undivided attention, putting what you have been doing out of sight and out of mind
• resist distractions or any other activity that might take you out of the moment (i.e., cell phone or TV)
• concentrate on what he or she is saying, paying extra attention to his or her heart — feelings and emotion
• watch nonverbal cues and body language
• use encouraging and reassuring gestures and body language
• resist thinking about your reply or rebuttal
• don’t get sidetracked by whether you agree with what he or she is saying
• let him or her finish talking before you respond
When your buttons are pushed
The single greatest barrier to listening is manifested when your buttons get pushed. As you seek to listen, your expectation should be that your buttons will be pushed. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. This is a reality because, in addition to sharing feelings, your spouse is going to share facts and opinions. Although someone’s feelings are not debatable, facts and opinions are. Don’t get sucked into a debate about who’s right or wrong, what really happened or who’s at fault. Try to center the conversation on your spouse’s feelings. Make your attitude “No problem.”
Are you ready to go deeper? Listening helps you hear your spouse’s wounded heart. Now you’re ready to take the next step. Seeking to understand before being understood will move you to a deeper level of intimacy.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family.