Getting Your Spouse to Really Hear You | Dr. Meir Wikler

Whether one is addressing a large public audience or speaking privately at home to his or her spouse, the goal is to be fully understood. It is not sufficient simply to have your words heard by your listener. If you are speaking to your spouse, for example, you want to feel that what you have to say is fully absorbed. Chazal offer numerous guidelines for effective speaking. Perhaps the most profound and most practical advice of Chazal was first attributed to Avraham Ibn Ezra: “Devarim ha’yotzim min ha’lev nichnasim el ha’lev, Words that are spoken from the heart will penetrate and enter the heart.”

What are devarim hayotzim min halev? Are they words uttered in anger? Are they aggressive comments expressed with fierce determination? Are they sarcastic barbs designed to sting the listener? Just what are these devarim hayotzim min halev that have such effective impact?

I believe that devarim hayotzim min halev refers to state­ments of feelings, as opposed to critical accusations or con­demnations. What Chazal seem to be saying is that our words will more likely accomplish their mission of being fully taken in by our listeners if they originate from our feelings. If you speak from the heart and not the head, if you begin with your feelings, you stand the greatest chance of getting through to your spouse.

Suppose, for example, your spouse did or said something which bothers you. And now you must express your disap­pointment so that your spouse will be able to correct his or her behavior in the future. How should you word your comments?

Should you label your spouse’s behavior as inappropriate, cruel or insensitive? Should you condemn your spouse for his or her disrespect or disregard? Should you lace into your spouse for going against your wishes and ignoring your preferences?

You may wish to speak that way. And it may make you feel better to, “tell it like it is.” But is it really the most effective approach? Will it accomplish your goal of being truly heard and understood?

Following the guidelines of using devarim ha’yotzim min ha’lev, however, you might achieve much more if you begin with an opening statement about your feelings. For example, you might say, “It makes me feel as if you do not care about me whenever we are in the car together and you use the opportu­nity to catch up on reciting Tehillim rather than having a con­versation with me.”

Here is another rule for effective speaking:

Be sure your spouse is listening.

Before you can assume the role of speaker, you must make sure you have a listener who is willing to hear what you have to say. If you need to speak to your spouse about an important or sensitive subject, be sure that your spouse is neither angry, distracted nor eager to be the speaker.

Generally, it is advisable to actively check out your spouse’s readiness to listen by asking, “Can you listen to me now?” Another variation would be, “I have something important to tell you. Are you able to be a listener now?”

If your spouse responds, “No,” you can ask when (s)he thinks (s)he will be ready to listen to you. While this will post­pone your being able to speak, it will improve your chances of being heard when ultimately you do get the floor.

“Miriam” felt that her husband, “Benny,” had unfairly blamed her for his outburst the previous day. He had flown off the handle, raised his voice and accused her of “provoking” him. As Benny’s anger had subsided, Miriam thought that the present moment was opportune to resolve the unfinished business from yesterday.

Benny was sitting at his computer, where he often parked himself whenever he had free time. He was engrossed in what appeared to Miriam to be a comput­er game. Now, she thought, would be the perfect time to let her husband know how upset he had made her with his verbal attack.

Miriam approached Benny and stood next to him as he faced his computer screen. “Last night you really ticked me off,” she began. “When you lose control like you did, you not only upset me but you also frighten the children.”

Before Miriam could continue, however, Benny whirled around, glaring at her and shouted, “Can’t you see I’m busy balancing our checkbook? If you don’t want me to do it, you can do it yourself. Will you please leave me alone so I can get this done and finally get to bed!”

Miriam left the room without saying another word. She felt insulted, hurt and even more hopeless than before.

Where did Miriam go wrong?

First, Miriam never should have begun speaking until Benny was facing her. Looking at the computer screen was a clear indication that Benny was not paying atten­tion to her.

Secondly, Miriam had not inquired as to whether this was a good time for Benny to listen to her. Had she asked, in all likelihood, Benny would have told Miriam not to bother him. Had that been the case, Miriam then could have asked Benny when would be a better time for her to speak with him.

If Benny had suggested an alternative time, Miriam could have waited until then and expected a more attentive spouse. If Benny had responded, “I don’t know,” Miriam could have still approached him later. In either case, Miriam would have avoided the disgrace and insult she suffered by violating this important rule of effective communication.

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Dr. Meir Wikler is a noted psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lakewood, N.J. This article has been adapted with permission of the author and publisher from Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll, 2003).

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