I am a lecturer.
When someone tells me about a problem, it’s instinctive for me to state the truth, express my opinion and offer advice. It is not instinctive for me to listen.
Before I got married, I thought of myself as a good listener. When people would confide in me, I did not hesitate to proffer my wisdom. I was completely oblivious to the fact that my responses sometimes shut people down and made them feel that I was looking down on them.
Enter my husband David. In premarital counseling, we began to unpack this dysfunctional dynamic. I am a conflict volatile, he is a conflict avoider. When we would argue or simply discuss a topic, I would steamroller him with my assertiveness and he would back further and further into a corner. He would tell me that he felt like I was the teacher and he was the student who got in trouble–an ironic comparison, since I was teaching high school at the time. The metaphor illustrated the power imbalance and unequal footing that we experienced in our relationship.
The first step towards change for us was awareness. If I realized that the steamroller was running, I would apologize to David. Sometimes I would become aware of it in the moment and try to hold back. I was often unsuccessful. I knew that I needed to stop, but I didn’t know what to do instead. I didn’t have the tools necessary to replace my bad habit with a good one.
We began talking about seeing someone who could help us with communication and conflict. When a counselor from the church materialized one evening, our healing process began. It only took a single session for me to see how I was hurting David and how I could help him instead.
People are different. Some respond positively to hearing ideas stated openly and assertively. But for others, that kind of communication pushes them back into their shell. It’s threatening. It’s not safe. It damages trust.
I am learning how to listen. I am learning how to slow down my mental responses, to affirm gently, and to ask thorough questions before I state my opinion. I’ve learned that sometimes, my opinion isn’t needed. Our conversations are getting better. We are more connected emotionally. We trust each other more.
It’s hard and messy work. It takes practice and failure and apologies. But learning to listen will strengthen every relationship in my life. My marriage is worth it. My family is worth it. My community is worth it.
I am a lecturer. I am restoring trust. I am learning to listen.