After more than 40 years as a counselor, I’ve learned to ask couples, “What do you like about the way your spouse communicates?”
One man explained that he needs to hear continual affirmation that he’s a good father and husband . . . even if he doesn’t quite measure up to all of his wife’s desires and expectations. He wants to be given physical affection and assurance that she’s glad she married him. Sometimes he even worries about that issue.
A wife told me that she appreciates that her husband listens without trying to fix things and supports her in pursuits that make her a better person and draw her closer to God. She said he frequently encourages her and carefully chooses his words.
What do these comments have in common? Both people expressed their need for encouragement.
We have the power to build a healthy marriage by offering our spouse encouragement rather than criticism. This form of positive communication involves some basic habits: being intentionally gentle, listening intently and validating our spouse. Through encouragement, we can bring about change, growth and the fulfillment of potential. We awaken the feeling, Someone believes in me!
You may think of encouragement as praise and reinforcement, but it’s more than that. Praise is limited; it’s a verbal reward. Praise emphasizes competition, has to be earned and is often given for being the best. Encouragement is given freely. It can involve noticing something in a person that others take for granted or affirming something that others notice but never think of mentioning.
Encouraging your spouse through positive communication can change his or her entire approach to life. Here are some tips to help you become an encourager so your spouse can become all he or she was meant to be.
One of the character qualities of an encourager is gentleness. This quality means that when you discover where another person is vulnerable, you’re not hard, harsh or forceful. When you discover a tender, sensitive place in your spouse, you protect it rather than step on it.
The opposite of encouragement is criticism. That’s usually destructive, but critical people often say they’re just trying to remold a spouse into a better person by offering some “constructive criticism.” Too often, criticism demolishes. It doesn’t nourish a relationship; it poisons. Criticism that is destructive accuses, produces guilt, intimidates and is often an outgrowth of personal resentment.
Remember that every time you have a thought — and before the words come out of your mouth — you have an opportunity to evaluate how you use the power of what you say. Consider this paraphrase of Ephesians 4:29: “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift” (The Message). Could what you say to your spouse be thought of as a gift? It could be if you choose words of encouragement.
True encouragement involves the art of listening. It means paying attention when your spouse is sharing with you and listening in a way that lets him or her know he or she is heard. You can show you’re listening by putting down what you’re working on, looking at your partner and repeating in your own words what you understood him or her to say.
Encouragement also includes letting your spouse know, “You matter to me.” You intentionally rephrase negatives into positives by identifying strengths and focusing on efforts and contributions instead of failures or things that weren’t done well. Encouragement recognizes your spouse as having worth and dignity in spite of imperfection. This means that you find something of value to recognize in your spouse, even when he or she can’t see it. Encouragement builds up your spouse. It focuses on any resource that can be turned into an asset or strength.
Exceptional couples understand how their strengths and weaknesses help them become better people. While no spouse wants his or her mate to have shortcomings, none of us is perfect. Even if we’re working to overcome our flaws, from time to time our partner is going to become frustrated with us. In such times, it’s a mature spouse who can see the opportunity for growth.
Encouragement Through Listening
One of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse is the gift of listening. It can be an act of connection and care, but far too many people only hear themselves talking. Few listen. If you listen to your spouse, he or she feels, I must be worth hearing. If you ignore your partner, his or her thought could be, What I said wasn’t important or He doesn’t care about me! Here are some tips to help you become a better listener:
Stay focused. When someone else is talking, most of us are concerned about what we’re going to say when the other person stops talking. This is a violation of Scripture because James 1:19 tells us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak.”
Watch your body language. When you communicate face to face with your spouse, your message is made up of three parts: content, which is only 7 percent; tone of voice, which is 38 percent; and nonverbal communication, which is 55 percent. What does this mean in your marriage? When your spouse shares with you, make sure your body language communicates openness and listen with your eyes because that’s as important as listening with your ears.
Be aware of gender differences. How we listen needs to be tailored to the person speaking. Women tend to give more response and feedback while they’re listening. Their responses aren’t necessarily agreement; they usually mean, “I understand” or “I’m connecting with you.” Men say less when they listen, and their feedback usually means, “I agree with you.” A woman often learns that when she’s listening to a man, he may not need as much feedback as a woman would. When she listens quietly to a man, he may respond with words like, “Thanks for really listening to me. It helps me keep my mind on track when I’m not interrupted.” On the other hand, when a man listens to a woman, he may need to remind himself to give her verbal reassurance that she is being heard.
Dr. H. Norman Wright is a grief and trauma therapist serving on the staff and faculty at the Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of Communication: Key to your marriage.