My wife has me figured out. She knows if she can get me angry just before guests arrive, I will clean the house. Rather than verbalizing my feelings toward her, I channel my frustrations by reaching for the vacuum cleaner or mop and pail. This tendency to act out my feelings is not unique to me. We all communicate with our spouses in non-verbal ways.
Conflict in relationships is never easy. Rather than speaking the truth in love, as Paul instructs in Ephesians 4:15, some of us opt for a “back door” route in an attempt to keep the peace. Some people use the deadly weapon of silence, refusing to speak to their partner for hours, days, sometimes weeks at a time. Others slam kitchen cupboards or treat objects carelessly. Body language and facial expressions also play a role in non-verbal communication—that twitching jaw, dismissive hand gesture or pulsating vein in your neck can betray your true feelings.
When we do speak, our words often complicate matters. Unhealthy verbal communication includes sarcasm, speaking through other people and hint-dropping. Some use guilt as a tactic to get what they want—“After all I’ve done for you, you can’t do this one, small thing for me.” Others try to intimidate by getting loud, aggressive or threatening. Some stonewall communication by pouting and groaning for all to hear but never verbalizing their true concerns.
None of these forms of communication leads to healthy relationships. As a matter of fact, they usually backfire. When people pick up on the hint-dropping, manipulation and guilt-tripping, resentment grows and peace is short-lived. An intimidator may get his or her way, but at a cost. In the aftermath of an argument, the combatants “walk around on eggshells” and there is a greater reluctance to communicate authentically. The dramatic display of anger may be worthy of an Academy Award, but the relationship can suffer lasting damage.
In The Feeling Good Handbook, author David Burns notes that for relationships to grow, two things are required: the chance to express your feelings openly and to actively listen to the other person’s point of view. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, calls these two properties of healthy communication truth-telling and truth-hearing.
The following are important steps for communicating with your partner:
1. Check Your Attitude
How do you tell the truth in love? The Apostle Paul writes: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). The word “grace” speaks to me of the attitude of communication. We must approach others in humility rather than coming from a stance of superiority.
God has extended his grace to us, and we must extend that same grace to others. Paul instructs us to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Before we confront others, we must first confront ourselves with the knowledge that we, too, are imperfect creatures.
2. Identify the Issue
Once your attitude has been checked, identify the issue needing to be communicated. My habit of cleaning the house when I’m mad, for example, is simply my way of avoiding the real issue. When your anger rises, pause for a moment and get in touch with what is really pushing your buttons.
3. Choose an Appropriate Time
I’m not a night person. Late in the evening is not a good time for my wife to engage me about matters of the heart. She comes to life after 11 p.m.—that’s when I start to shut down. Timing is everything. Find a time where you are both able to give 100 percent of your attention to the conversation. The Bible notes, “There is a time for everything … a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7).
4. Meet Face to Face
If possible, meet to discuss your issues face to face. Some people attempt to communicate sensitive relationship matters through e-mail, text messaging or telephone, but these devices don’t convey emotion well. Face to face, you can gauge emotion by watching body language. If you see a facial expression that doesn’t convince you the issue is resolved, ask for clarification.
5. Watch Your Language
Sometimes it is better to be silent than to use inappropriate words that leave us feeling misunderstood and minimized. Although we may be trying to help the person, our words can sometimes leave them feeling worse about their situation.
During a recent stop at Dairy Queen, I picked up the Coffee News. In the famous quotes section I read these words: “Some people speak from experience; others, from experience, don’t speak.”
My dad taught me this lesson. Soon after I got my driver’s licence at age 16, I got into a car accident that was entirely my fault. As it was only four blocks from my house, I ran to get my dad. He handled it so well. He dealt with the other driver, brought me home and never said another word about it for the rest of his life. He saw how shaken up I was and wisely concluded that I did not need a lecture.
6. Affirm the Relationship
Say something that expresses your feelings, but with the goal of reinforcing the relationship. For example, “I have a concern that I feel is getting in the way of our relationship. I’d like to talk about it so we can clear it up and get back to where we were.”
Treat your partner with dignity, respect and kindness. Paul sums it up wonderfully in Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your months, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Bruce Weinstein in Life Principles: Feeling Good By Doing Good, says, “The word ‘benefit’ comes from the Latin word bene, which means ‘good.’ Whenever we benefit someone, we help them to flourish. Just as watering a plant gives it one of the elements necessary for the plant to grow, our words can help nurture our relationships.”
7. Communicate Using “I” Statements
Rather than directing your attack by using the word you—“You never do what I ask” or “You are always causing problems”—try using “I” statements. These work well because they shift the emphasis off blaming (which can easily result in defensiveness) to how the person feels about the behaviour.
An “I” statement would sound something like this: “When the kitchen is left in a mess, I feel taken advantage of because I have to spend my time and energy cleaning up after you. I would appreciate it if you would commit to putting the food away in the fridge and the dishes in the dishwasher.”
8. Know Your Partner
People process things differently. Recognize the personality differences between you and your spouse. If you are an introvert by nature, let the extrovert know that you are processing the information, so your lack of immediate response is not misinterpreted as lack of concern. If you are an extrovert, let the introvert know that you are not nagging or pressuring but just thinking out loud.
This brings us to the other side of healthy communication: truth-hearing. When it comes to truth-hearing, some of us can relate to that classic scene at the end of the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson’s character shouts: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
Truth can be tough to take. And yet, when words are spoken to us in love, we can discover nuggets of wisdom that move us toward growth. Many Bible verses illustrate this truth:
• “Whoever needs a life-giving correction will be at home among the wise. Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but those who heed correction gain understanding” (Proverbs 15:31-32).
• “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).
• “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
• “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
Listening not only makes someone feel valued, but in listening we may hear a life-giving truth that can lead us to another level of personal and relational growth and maturity.
True, it takes courage to stand up and speak, and courage to sit down and listen. Now that I’ve caught on to my wife’s house-cleaning ploy, I’ve decided to change my style of communication. Rather than acting out my feelings, I am opting for a healthier method of communication. After all, it beats cleaning the house.
Tips for Good Listening
• Get rid of distractions. Turn off the TV, computer or cellphone; put down your newspaper or book.
• Listen without passing judgment. Be patient as thoughts and emotions are put into words. Watch for body language and gestures that are also communicating.
• Clear your mind. Guard against practising a response in your mind while the other person is talking.
• Don’t interrupt. Respect the other person’s right to speak. Resist the urge to finish one another’s sentences. Ask for clarification if necessary.
• Don’t tell them how they should feel. Listen without providing a solution to fix the problem. Be open to seeing the other person’s point of view.
• Refrain from giving pat answers or advice. Share your opinion only at the invitation of the other party.
• Check for accuracy. During an appropriate break in the conversation, say, “I just want to make sure I am clear about what you are saying. Are you saying …?”
• Avoid “communication killers.” Labelling, humouring, teasing, sympathizing or changing the subject only aggravates the situation.
Major Bob Armstrong and his wife, Penny, are the corps officers of The Willows, a community church of The Salvation Army in Langley, B.C. The parents of three young men, Bob and Penny have ministered as a team for 26 years in various capacities: pastors, church planters, facilitators of reconciliation, counsellors, educators and conference speakers. Both are registered clinical counselors and authors of the Couple Care Pre-Marriage Manual, Along the Way and Broken Church Restored. Along the Way: A Practical Guide to Help Couples can be purchased for $12 plus shipping by emailing Bob_Armstrong@can.salvationarmy.org.