Monday, March 17, 2014

What Is Learning To Communicate?

In our family we have gone through seasons where we watch Jeopardy, the TV game show. Taylor and Caleb love to see if any of us can beat a contestant on a question or if we can run a category by answering every question. And I get insanely happy when I see these categories: The Bible, New Testament or Old Testament or 80's music. I know I have a chance to look and feel smart against the TV contestant, but my kids will give me a run for my money--except on 80's music. That one I will win hands down.

I don't want to ever be on Jeopardy though, because I have the hardest time phrasing everything in the form of a question as the game requires. I just want to shout out the answer. It's so very hard to learn to say things in a new way. Instead of "Who are the Psychedelic Furs?" I want to say, "PSYCHEDELIC FURS!" On Jeopardy this would mean I would lose. I wouldn't communicate in the way that Alex Trebek can hear.

In my real life, I have the same struggle. I don't always communicate in a way that is clearly heard and understood by my husband or my children. And sometimes I have a hard time hearing them because they aren't speaking so clearly either.


About eight years ago when Kevin and I began getting counseling, we were introduced to two useful tools for communicating in our marriage. The first tool was called "I feel...about...because...." statements. This I learned was a safe way to express what was going on inside me without attacking the other person.

At first, it was so very difficult to stop and think through this statement and say, "I feel hurt about how you joke around because your jokes put me down." It felt much more natural to turn away, stuff that thought, and harden my heart. Or maybe my emotions would spill over from all that stuffing and I would say, "You are always putting me down through your stupid jokes! Well, they aren't funny and you are a jerk!" That would be communicating something for sure, but not helping what was already problematic between us.

The second tool I had to learn was reflective listening. This one was even more challenging than the first. In reflective listening I had to tell back what the other person has expressed. This required setting aside my own interpretations and hearing things from Kevin's perspective. Since our perspectives were often opposed, this was no easy task! I felt like I was choking on the words because they were not my thoughts or my feelings, but Kevin's. However, I eventually grew to understand that reflecting back didn't mean I felt or thought what he thought. It just meant I was listening to Kevin. And what a relief it was when he could hear me as well.

These gifts have changed the way we relate. I am being heard without having to raise my voice. I am learning to listen well and understand a viewpoint different than my own. I don't have to agree with you to hear you and empathize with your experience. It doesn't change my experience, but it does open the door for me to relate to you heart to heart.

Fast forward to today. Most of the time I still have to slow down and back up to do this well.  There is always the pull to return to the old patterns, but I am now aware enough to catch myself (most of the time) and start over. What started as something that seemed forced and unnatural became easier and brought real communication into our relationship.

Psalm 51:6 says, "Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place." God wants me to tell the truth. When I talk about how I feel, God is not impressed with a mask or a lie. He desires truth. God wants me to speak with the wisdom of kindness. Listening well and reflecting back what I hear opens the door to understanding even when I may not agree with another. These tools aren't just about helping you get along with others, they are about living authentically and honestly before God and with others.

I'm not going to learn to answer in the form of a question for Jeopardy. But it's just a TV show, so I've never lost anything because of it. But if I never learn to share the depths of my heart with those I love most, then I have missed everything.