Habits of Effective Communicators:
Being Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak and Slow to Become Angry
By Drs. Emily Scott-Lowe and Dennis Lowe
"Well, I cried myself to sleep again last night" Jennifer mutters to her husband as he is preparing to leave for work. "What was wrong?" asked Steve, her husband. "You know!" Jennifer replies. "No, I don't know what you're talking about," says Steve. "I can't believe it" continues Jennifer, "as always, you made fun of me in front of our friends last night and now you're acting amnesic! How many time have I told you how much that hurts me?" "Oh no" Steve retorts, "let's not go through that stupid discussion again. If you would just lighten up a bit, you wouldn't get so upset."
Steve and Jennifer are about to experience another frustrating interaction--maybe even a meltdown--in the same way they have every time this topic has arisen. Sound familiar? The good news is that they can learn to have more constructive conversations, even about these difficult topics. What we've learned is that successful communication requires following rules and taking time outs when needed.
James 1:19 gives us some rules to follow in our communication. It reads "therefore be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry." Sounds easy when we read it, but it's difficult to implement.
So what steps can we take to make this scripture a reality in our day-to-day relationships?
1. In order to listen, speak, and manage our anger effectively, we need to start by selecting the right time and place to have a discussion. Most of us have discovered the wrong times to introduce a sensitive topic. Jennifer approaches Steve as he's leaving to go to work, increasing the likelihood of friction. Other bad times are when either or both people are hungry, tired, stressed, or preoccupied with a task.
In the book A Lasting Promise, the authors recommend that when topics emerge at inopportune times, couples agree to continue the discussion within twenty-four hours when the timing is better. We've made an agreement in our own marriage not to continue discussions during those times that are ripe for conflict with the understanding that we'll pick it back up at a better time that is jointly determined. Arranging to continue the discussion within twenty-fours hours allows for a postponement of the topic without totally avoiding or ignoring it.
After selecting the right time to have a discussion, what other rules aid fulfillment of James 1:19?
2. Although this sounds obvious, to promote good communication one person needs to be the "listener" and one the "speaker." Usually what happens is both want to be the speaker and no one really listens. To counteract this tendency, researchers at the University of Denver (Markman, Stanley and Blumberg) have found that the "listener" and "speaker" need clearly defined roles and rules.
Rules for the listener:
- No interrupting. Interruptions are not only difficult for the speaker, but often indicate that the listener is focusing more on a rebuttal than really listening to what is being said.
- Paraphrase back what the speaker says. Just assuming that you understood the speaker's intent is deadly. Stating what you heard to the speaker provides an opportunity to clarify that you heard correctly. Being able to summarize the speaker's perspective does not mean you agree, just that you have captured his or her viewpoint.
- If you do not understand, request clarification. Keep asking until you are able to rephrase exactly what the speaker intended.
- Agree to be the speaker when your turn arrives. Each person has a perspective that needs to be expressed.
Rules for the speaker:
- Speak for yourself. Avoid accusations or blaming. Use phrases such as: "What I recall is..." or "My perception was that..." or "I feel hurt when stories are told about me in public." These phrases make it easier for the listener to listen.
- Be concise. Use only three or four sentences and pause. This allows the listener to digest what has been said. After four or five sentences even the best listener can get confused.
- Use a calm voice. Even if you are very upset a quiet voice is easier to hear.
- Agree to be a listener when your turn arrives. Taking turns assures that each person gets a chance to truly understand the other's perspective.
3. Time outs. In a basketball game, time outs are called when the play is getting sloppy or the flow of the game is moving in a negative direction. It is a surprise for some couples to learn that they can also call a halt to interactions that are becoming destructive. When discussions get heated, both people not only have the right but the responsibility to call a time out before things get out of hand.
During a time out, the communication rules may need to be reviewed. Each person needs to evaluate his or her part in the conflict. This is also a good time to focus clearly on the one or two points that need to be clearly communicated. Some couples invoke prayer during these times so they can utilize God's power to make their future discussions more constructive. Then, after 15-20 minutes (the time it takes to neutralize negative physiological arousal), the "play" can be resumed.
In A Lasting Promise, Scott Stanley and his colleagues describe the rules for speakers and listeners in depth. They recommend having an object represent the "floor." It can be a pencil, a book or any handy, small object. Whoever has the "floor" is the speaker. The "floor" is passed back and forth so it is clear who is speaking and who is listening. This helps keep order and prevent escalation.
Sometimes the barriers in a relationship are so big, couples have difficulty sticking-to the speaker-listener rules without a referee. An unbiased third person may be needed to help both keep the rules and call "time outs." This could be a church leader, marriage mentor, or Christian therapist who helps the couple learn to resolve conflict. It is better to utilize a referee than let an important relationship deteriorate beyond repair.
After learning about these guidelines, Steve and Jennifer first practiced using them on less potent topics than her hurt feelings in social situations. When they felt prepared to discuss the more sensitive topic of her feelings, they each kept a copy of the rules nearby. Steve heard the depth of Jenniferís feelings for the first time. His previous efforts to defend himself prevented him from totally hearing what she had tried to say. He agreed to stop telling stories about Jennifer that would hurt her. Also, Jennifer learned that Steve did not have the malicious intent to hurt her that she had long imagined.
Jennifer and Steve learned that, by applying the James 1:19 principle of "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry," they were able to begin removing barriers that had become difficult to penetrate. They were surprised to discover that they were actually drawn closer together through this more effective method of managing conflicts.
Originally Published in 21st Century Christian Magazine.