By LuAnn Wu
My husband and I have had many conflicts as we pack up our 20-year-old house and decide what to keep and what to toss. Sometimes we handle these conflicts in a healthy manner, while other times we have to take timeouts and return to resolve them later when we are calmer. When attempting to resolve a disagreement, my tendency is to protect my own agenda, prove that I am right, and not listen well, but I am working to institute breaks when triggered, as discussed last week, and to listen well, which I will address today.
We all long to be understood and validated, but often in our families of origin, this desire is not met. In marriage, we are often attracted to someone who is our opposite in many ways, but those differences often lead to conflict. Likewise, personality characteristics may lead to conflict with our children, and as believers, we may have a difficult time hearing others who are different from us in behavior or beliefs. If we realize that the goal is more about understanding than consensus, then 100 percent agreement is less important. Instead, we can focus on the person and his or her feelings, thus preserving the relationship.
James 1:19 states, “But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” In response, we naturally ask, “What does it mean to be quick to hear when all I want is to get a word in and be heard?” and “How do I listen when I disagree?” After you have taken the time to calm down, decide if you agree with this statement (from MarriageTeam Coaching Ministry): Understanding does not mean agreeing. If you both can agree with this assertion, then you are on your way to listening well to one another. The goal then is not proving who is right, but listening fully and preserving the connection between individuals. If you are open to listening when you disagree, you are halfway toward a resolution of the issue.
Just as we can learn to tame our tongue, we can learn to strengthen our listening skills, thereby avoiding escalation and preserving precious connections. Here are a few steps toward growing in our listening maturity:
- If your family member is willing, pray together. Ask the Holy Spirit for the power and self-control to hold your tongue, for the opening of the eyes of your heart (Ephesians 1:18), and for the quickening of your ears. Admittedly, in the midst of intense conflict, this is challenging as prayer is often the last thing on our minds.
- Give your full attention to your family member by turning your body and looking at him or her. Eye rolling, interrupting, and sighing comes across as disrespectful and does not build trust. Listening well means quieting all body parts except your ears.
- Be curious, listen with the intent to learn his or her viewpoint, but remember that you do not have to agree. Ask clarifying questions, keeping in mind that in listening you are allowing the other person to share his or her opinion, even if on the inside you may disagree.
- Rephrase what you heard from your loved one. This is one of the most difficult steps as our fallen nature yearns to defend our own positions. Instead, pray for self-control, waiting patiently for your turn to share your viewpoint. Avoid simply parroting back verbatim what your loved one said, but make an earnest effort to restate his or her position in your own words. This conveys that you are truly trying to hear and to understand.
- Ask: “Is there more?” This invites a full recounting of feelings and opinions.
- When you are done listening, ask if your family member can now listen to your viewpoint, applying all of the above steps. If anyone becomes triggered again (yelling, clenched jaw, racing heart), repeat the timeout as discussed last week and try for resolution at a later time. Listening well will not be effective if either individual is fired up.
- When you have both stated your viewpoints, see if you can arrive at a resolution to the issue that respects both perspectives. Sometimes you will have to agree to disagree, but at least you will have heard each other’s feelings. Resolve to discuss the issue at a later date, pray, and see if there is any renewed chance toward an agreement. If the issue becomes entrenched and immovable, ask for help from a trusted counselor or pastor if the conflict is significant enough to warrant this.
Listening well is a difficult skill, but it is one of the most far-reaching gifts we can give. James compares the tongue to a very small rudder, which can steer a large ship, one that is a “small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God” (3:5, 9). Likewise, we have two ears that can be developed into powerful and effective tools. If we listen astutely with maturity and discernment, not only can we lower the chances of conflict escalation, we can also empower our speech with grace, truth, and compassion. Incline your heart to Jesus, and let Him produce ears that are potent and gracious instruments for the benefit of blessing your family and others, thereby drawing them to our Savior.
LuAnn K. Wu, a licensed professional counselor, has attended UFC with her husband Duke since the church began. Together they led a small group for nine years. LuAnn returned to school when her youngest child started kindergarten, ultimately receiving her counseling degree from Northwest Christian. She has practiced counseling for 13 years, primarily working with veterans who have experienced trauma, and counseling couples because, as she says, “I know how hard marriage can be.”