When it comes to confrontation in marriage, I have a rule of thumb that has proved itself to be true over and over again:
The one who listens the best first wins.
This rule holds true whether you’re the one initiating the confrontation or not. In fact, if you are the initiator, one of the most important things you must plan to do in the confrontation is to listen. It’s all too easy to get caught up in analyzing the issue and preparing the words we want to deliver to the other person. But if our goal is to restore and strengthen connection—which is the goal of every successful confrontation—then we know that saying our piece is only one part of the puzzle. And it’s not the most important part, either.
The most important part of every successful confrontation is that it becomes a collaboration—two people working together with a common purpose, which is to find and meet the needs that are currently not being met in the relationship. And between the two roles in this collaboration—speaker and listener—the listening role is usually the game changer.
Here are 4 tips for winning every confrontation in marriage.
1. CHOOSE TO OPERATE WITH A SPIRIT OF GENTLENESS.
In Galatians 6:1, Paul says, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (NKJV).
Paul is using the same language Jesus used when He said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29 NIV). Jesus invites us to a position of intimacy and connection, a place where our hearts and lives become aligned with His. And in assuring us that He is “gentle and humble in heart,” He is saying, “I am a safe place. I am not going to try to control you or dominate you. This yoke of relationship is not going to hurt you or take away your freedom. It’s actually a place where your soul can rest, where the pain and fear and weariness you’ve been carrying can finally come out and be healed.”
This is the spirit of gentleness. To be effective listeners in a confrontation, we must approach the other person in a way that says, “My goal with you in this conversation is to create a safe place for connection—a place where you can tell me the truth about what is going on with you with no fear of being punished or controlled.”
The spirit of gentleness is foundational for being successful as a listener, because being on the receiving end of whatever the speaker is sending our way typically provides us with invitations to change our goal, go into self-preservation mode, and start creating distance. Instead, we must choose to listen past the things we want to disagree with or get offended by and stay positioned toward collaboration and connection.
2. DEMONSTRATE THAT YOUR FIRST OBJECTIVE IN CONFRONTATION IN MARRIAGE IS UNDERSTANDING.
One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits is “Seek first to understand,” and this is certainly critical to every successful confrontation. The listening role is uniquely positioned to seek understanding of the three core pieces of information that need to be clarified and addressed:
- What the speaker is experiencing
- The behavior creating that experience
- What the speaker needs to experience
Sometimes the speaker needs help mining for these pieces of information and formulating them into a clear message. In this case, the listener has an opportunity to step in as an assistant investigator. Clarifying questions, reflective listening, and “I messages” are powerful tools that a listener can use to collaborate with the speaker and reach mutual clarity and understanding of the issue.
Clarifying question: “You say that me driving that fast made you really mad. Can you tell me more about why it made you mad?”
Reflective listening: “So you’re saying that my driving made you feel scared and powerless?”
Using the “I message” in reflective listening: “So you feel scared and powerless when I drive fast, and you need to feel safe and protected in this relationship?”
3. CLEARLY IDENTIFY THE NEED.
This is the “gold” in every successful confrontation in marriage: clearly identifying the needs that must be met to restore and strengthen connection. And whoever is listening best will be the one to find that gold first.
The moment needs are clearly identified in a confrontation is a truly beautiful thing. So much of the anxiety that typically affects people in a confrontation stems from two things—“I don’t really know what the problem is or what I need” and “I’m not sure if I can trust you to care and meet my need.” When the listener collaborates in helping the speaker clearly articulate the need, it automatically relieves both fears. Hope floods into the conversation as both people realize that they understand what the need is, know that the other person cares about meeting it, and most likely, already see some steps forward toward a solution.
4. USE GREAT INFORMATION TO BUILD A GREAT SOLUTION.
We all know that the person with the best information about a problem is usually the one who will build the best solution to it. By posturing themselves to pay attention to and serve the speaker in helping them find the need, great listeners also posture themselves both to see how they can adjust their behavior to meet the need and to willingly do so. There is no question of the other person needing to cajole, beg, or manipulate them into adjusting. They are ready to do it for the team.
Feeling heard, known, and cared for are core needs for all of us in relationships. Let’s commit to becoming people who can meet those needs for others by growing into great listeners. The standard of listening we set in our relationships will determine the degree to which our own needs will be met.