“What’s your favorite subject in school?” our pediatrician asked my fourth-grade daughter during a recent check-up.
She quickly answered, “I don’t like math.”
Inwardly, I cringed at her response—and not simply because she’d replied to a positive question with a negative remark. You see, I knew she didn’t really dislike math. What she disliked was the work math required.
From a young age, she’d been able to quickly solve problems in her head. But then we hit regrouping in second grade, followed by multi-digit multiplication and long division with remainders in third and fourth.
Suddenly, math in her head wasn’t so easy anymore.
She complained that there were too many steps, resisted writing problems down, and constantly looked for shortcuts. Often the result was she had to redo problems multiple times. What she didn’t realize was that all of her hemming and hawing and short-cut taking actually created more work for her.
Maybe you don’t mind math so much. In fact, you might love to regroup and write down long division problems. But perhaps sometimes communication in marriage makes you feel like my daughter does about math—you don’t like how much work it often requires.
If so, I get it.
There are days … weeks, even … when my husband Ted and I struggle to communicate well. These are the instances when communicating demands more time, energy, and work than we have the capacity to muster up. And, when it gets challenging—you know, like those multi-step multiplication problems—it feels easier not to talk, rather than to work hard at it.
But, here’s what I’m learning: Just like math, it’s not that hard to communicate well if we take the necessary steps to.
What are these steps?
Here are three you can start using today.
- Slow down
I’ve noticed that Ted and I struggle the most with communication when we rush through it instead of taking the time to slow down and really focus on what the other is saying.
Now, I know from personal experience, how difficult it is to talk without interruption or distraction. Sometimes, frankly, it’s impossible … especially for those of us with kids. So what does it look like—in a practical sense—to slow down?
It’s as simple as making eye contact with your spouse and maintaining it, and I’m not talking in a staring-contest-kind-of-way. Rather, in a way that nonverbally says, “You have my full attention.”
And, when your kids interrupt or your phone buzzes—which most likely will both happen—ask your kids to wait and ignore your phone. Keep looking at your spouse and letting them know you are listening.
- Listen better.
But what does it means to really listen? It is to actively pay attention to what someone else is telling us. This includes:
Positive body language. In addition to eye contact, positive body language also means uncrossing your arms, leaning toward your spouse, and nodding at appropriate moments in response.
Focus on what’s being said. Many of us formulate our response while our spouse is still talking. As a result, we end up not really listening. Resist figuring out what you want to say next and instead simply focus on what your spouse is saying.
Limited interruptions. As you focus on what your spouse is saying, try not to verbally interrupt, but instead to let your spouse finish. Exceptions include if you need clarification or additional information to fully understand. But intentionally try not to introduce new topics and derail what your spouse is saying.
- Repeat often.
When I say “repeat often,” I don’t mean as in repeat your words over and over again. Frankly, that would get annoying—and result in conflict. Instead, I’m talking about a communication technique called reflecting. It means we paraphrase back to each other what we’ve heard.
This helps with a couple of things:
- It ensures we’ve correctly understood our spouse
- Let’s our spouse know we are really listening
- Helps avoid any misunderstandings if a conflict is involved
So, once your spouse has finished sharing thoughts with you, sum up what they’ve said to show that you have heard and understood them.
You and I don’t need to feel the same way about communication in marriage as my daughter feels about multi-step math problems. These three steps may take work on our part, but they are fully worth it!
Ashleigh Slater is the author of “Team Us: Marriage Together” and “Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life is Hard.” Find out more about Ashleigh at AshleighSlater.com or follow her on Facebook.