17 October 2016

Listening Skills Required: Venting vs. Troubleshooting

I used to think I would be an amazing therapist. I loved giving advice to friends and reading "Dear Abby" type columns. Turns out counseling is not supposed to be simply handing out advice, especially not your personal opinion, as it does not help instill confidence in their own problem solving abilities. Nor is it always wanted or needed. Instead of giving advice filled with my own biases and values, I need to listen and ask questions to help them explore alternatives and come up with their own solutions. It takes major listening skills to hear and correctly understand exactly what is going on in someone's life. Unfortunately, this is not a natural strength of mine. 

It sounds so easy in theory. How could there possibly be more than one step? 

Step 1: "Listen." 

Maybe a step 2 could be added: "Keep Listening."

But something so seemingly easy can be surprisingly hard and complex. 

In a marriage, lack of listening skills can result in many problems, some of which we will discuss in subsequent posts. 
My personal struggle that I mentioned already is that is that I often find myself getting lost in my own thoughts trying to figure out what advice to give instead of truly listening. I sometimes completely miss what the actual problem is. Or fail to see that advice is not actually wanted.

I've read several books on this topic and have learned some great ways to practice listening skills. The good news is that, although listening may not be something that comes naturally to you, it is a learned skill that can be strengthened over time!

Today we will discuss a listening issue that has a very easy solution. I'm easing us in! This specific problem arises when you give advice or offer solutions when your spouse really only needs a sympathetic ear to safely vent some frustrations. You may think you don't have this problem, but just humor me and ask your spouse anyway. You may be surprised!

This problem is stereotypically where the husband is the primary offender. Men are often valued for fixing things around the house and troubleshooting at the workplace. So it's hard to shift gears and not offer immediate and hard solutions to a wife describing a problem. It's good for the other spouse to understand that it's a valued skill and gift of theirs that just isn't quite appreciated in this instance. Hopefully we can extend some grace in this area while it is being worked on.

The stereotypical mold doesn't always fit, though. I am very solution-oriented, which can often be a great trait to have. But it can wreak havoc in two ways when I try to offer a seemingly quick-fix for my husband:

1) It brushes past his feelings and disregards how the situation is weighing on him. Thus, it implies I don't care. I may not even have the details of the full story yet and somehow think I know what is best. It shows that I want to move on from the conversation quickly by applying a fast band-aid. It can also imply that I think I am smarter, assuming he couldn't brainstorm a solution on his own (totally not true!). I don't want him to think any of this! But I need to be aware of what I am communicating in these instances.

2) I miss out on understanding my husband on a deeper, intimate level. If I simply ask more questions, I can get the opportunity to hear my husband's heart. If it is your wife that is the one opening up, you can use this time to show that you care about her struggles. If you try to squash the conversation with a quick fix, a husband may realize he can't be vulnerable with you anymore and a wife may shut down that line of communication and only talk to her friends about her struggles in the future. Don't let this happen. Embrace the chance for this true intimacy.

On the other side of the equation, since I like solutions, I get annoyed if I bare my soul to my husband about a tough problem and he just nods and listens. For whatever reason, to me that communicates that he doesn't care enough to help me troubleshoot, and it's my burden to bear alone and figure out. A few months into marriage, I finally told him this, and he was shocked. He thought all women want a man that would sit there and listen to them vent. Well, yes, but not for everything!

After discussing it for some time, we came to this solution. You may want a pad of paper and pen to write it down. Tell your spouse upfront when you only want to vent. And if you want solutions, ask for it. I know. It sounds way too simplistic but it needs to happen. And it works. Your spouse cannot read your mind, despite how much you think she or he should be able to have that skill. If you think you might be the offending spouse, ask what is needed at that time. And yes, this needs to happen every time unless you know your spouse only wants one or the other. 

If your spouse says he or she just wants you to listen, do it. Close your mouth. Literally bite your tongue if needed. Embarrassingly enough, I've had to do that on multiple ocassions before. After listening, it's okay to ask clarifying questions. Try to understand the situation from your spouse's perspective and be sympathetic. That is all. 

Sometimes I've had a hard day with the kids and I don't want my husband suggesting I should read more parenting books. That would not go over too well! I really just need him to be sympathetic and say, "You have such a tough job!" or I may even want him to give me the world's biggest bear hug so I can cry without judgment. But more often than not, I'm usually struggling with something specific like trying to figure out a discipline technique that would actually work on our toddler. In those times,  I truly need advice and to troubleshoot with him. I may need him to sit down and pray with me. If I tell him what I need, he is there - ready and willing. Your spouse most likely will be as well as long as you spell it out for him or her! 

Which one do you usually need? A listening ear to vent to or do you want solutions to be suggested as a default? Ask your spouse this week as well and see if you are surprised by their answer!

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