Hold regular marriage conferences.
Many couples have been able to improve their marriages simply by having two or three "marriage conferences" a week. These conferences are designed to last for thirty minutes, during which time each person asks the other a total of five questions, listening to the answers without interruption. It is surprising how much good two or three half-hour marriage conferences will do for a couple who has previously avoided talking.
The first step in listening correctly is to expand the amount of information we receive. Make inquiries that begin with phrases like, "I wonder if you could tell me ..." or "Please explain to me ..." Then ask more questions, avoiding sensitive areas. This step promotes a safe environment for the speaker and reduces tension.
The second step in listening is based on the idea that any message sent is actually three messages: (1) the meaning of the words spoken, (2) the reactions the sender wants from the listener, and (3) the underlying feelings associated with the message.
In the happiest marital relationships, couples simply respond first with an understanding of the literal meaning of the words. They then use this interpretation to understand what they should do and how the speaker feels. However, during conflict, miscommunication can occur at any of the three levels. Couples may misinterpret the meaning of the words, fail to understand what actions are desired, or be insensitive to how the speaker feels.
If the meaning of the words is unclear, the listener can concentrate on the third message—understanding underlying feelings. Most people think their own feelings are extremely important and appreciate any effort by others to understand them. Periodically asking how the speaker is feeling can reduce the speaker’s anxieties, allowing him to focus on what he is saying.
The third step in listening stems from the position of the listener. If a speaker has sent a message and a listener has received it, the listener must decide on a response. Simple statements such as, "I appreciate knowing that," or "I’m really glad you’ve told me," are effective ways of responding. Some people may wonder how they can think of anything nice to say when they are angry at their spouses. There is never a time when something in their spouses cannot evoke a positive response—just look for it.
Communicate that you understand.
I saw the dramatic effects of this one day when a wife, quite justifiably, vented her anger at her husband. Her tirade went on for two or three minutes while he sat listening, not reacting to anything she said. Her statements had been fairly angry, even cruel. Instead of responding similarly, he smiled a bit and said, "Although I don’t agree with everything you’ve said, I appreciate what you’ve said, and I know you wouldn’t have said it unless you cared about our marriage." His statement diminished her anger. She acknowledged that she may have exaggerated her frustrations. He said he saw the need for adjustment on his part, and a resolution was made within a few minutes.
All human beings benefit from the knowledge that someone understands them. This is especially true in a relationship as important as marriage.
Foundations for a Happier Marriage by A. Lynn Scoresby, Ph.D.