Kashelle and I are taking a course on marital communication.
Thus far, here are two of my big takeaways:
(1) careful listening is vitally important to a healthy relationship,
(2) it is terribly difficult.
Listening is an incredibly selfless act. But it takes a high level of concentration; especially in the midst of disagreement. When opinions clash, there's tremendous temptation to listen evaluatively. An evaluative listener seeks to control and direct the conversation. If you make quick internal judgments, rehearse rebuttals, mind-read or interrupt others with challenging questions, you're probably listening in this manner. At its worst, evaluative listening becomes purely reactive. You only listen long enough to ignore, minimize, discount, or disprove the other person's thoughts or experiences. Notice, the goal in this instance is not to understand the person (which would involve attending to words, acknowledging emotions, carefully summarizing and reflecting the person's thoughts to ensure accuracy, inviting more information, and asking open-ended questions), but to defeat them.
Now, if you're cross-examining a defendant, or competing on a college debate team, evaluative listening may prove useful. If, however, you and your spouse are trying to find a mutually satisfying solution to a problem through collaboration, such listening is often counterproductive. As our workbook states, the impact of evaluative listening is generally, "negative, especially when someone is trying to explain his or her side of things. In these cases, the listening style is inefficient and generates anger and frustration, yielding unsatisfactory results. Disagreements quickly become power struggles rather than information exchanges (with anyone involved vying for who is right or wrong). Lack of listening skills leaves people stuck." (Collaborative Marriage Skills, 85). By contrast, attentive listening allows you to hear the other in an uncontaminated way, to comprehend accurately, and to discover useful information. If both people listen in this way, they're far more likely to resolve a problem quickly and effectively.
But (as every couple knows!) this is easier said than done. As I said, attentive listening is very, very hard. It's a form of death. You must crucify your desire to speak up, to defend, to correct, or to blame. You must open yourself to potentially painful information. And you must consider the other person's words, thoughts, and experiences as "more important than your own" (Phil 2:3). For self-centered, fallen humans, that can feel absolutely agonizing.
So what should motivate us to listen this way? Obviously, the potential relational benefits are motivating. Obedience always brings blessings. But I think there's a more fundamental motivator. We can listen to our spouses this way, because this is how God listens to us.
The Father is attentive to us. He is qualitatively more generous than the best earthly fathers (Matthew 7:7-11). Thus Jesus repeatedly encourages us to ask him for "anything." Peter invites us to cast our anxieties on the Father, because he cares about us (1 Peter 5:7). The Psalter repeatedly corroborates this point, as various Psalmists grieve, complain, doubt, yell and even (!) rejoice in the presence of God.
The Son is also attentive to us. As our High Priest, Jesus represents God to us, and us to God. And since Jesus is a human, he sympathizes with our weakness and suffering (Heb 2:15; 4:15). He can truly "relate" to what we're going through. And he serves as our representative before God. The Father eternally loves the Son. And he is favorably disposed towards us in him. Moreover, as our High Priest, Jesus doesn't just sit around. He actively intercedes for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). As the Apostle John says, Christ is our legal advocate before the Father (1 John 2:2). Christ pleads the merit of his blood on our behalf. And as Wesley wrote, "The Father hears Him pray, His dear Anointed One. He cannot turn away, the presence of his Son." This is all the more astounding, given that the Father is not some aloof, disinterested judge who must be "persuaded" to love us. Jesus pleads our case before the Father; the same Father who has already demonstrated his love towards us by sending Jesus (John 3:16; Romans 5:8)! Jesus attends to us. Thus, we should draw into God's presence "with boldness" (Heb 4:16).
Finally, the Spirit is attentive to us. The Spirit searches our hearts. And he discerns and expresses our deepest longings (the ones we cannot articulate) to God (Romans 8:26-27).
The Spirit prays through you, while the Son prays for you, while the Father listens attentively. No one is more attentive to you. No one could be.
At Creekside, we often talk about how the gospel holds the solution to every problem. This is the gospel solution to our listening problem. The one we must attend to, attends to us. If we have a compulsive need to be heard, we have forgotten this truth. Thus, we are free to listen to others, and freely offer the gift of our undivided attention.