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5 Great Habits of an Effective Listener

By Dennis Rainey

Communicating in marriage, especially listening, is what blood is to our bodies … it carries the nutrients for life and growth in all relationships.

After over 50 years of marriage one might think that I’d know how to listen to Barbara.

I’d certainly think!


The few years have seen me go back to school on how to truly listen and understand her. Think of a graduate level course. The bottom line: I’ve enrolled!

“No one is there”

How often does this type of thing happen in your marriage? One of you is talking, but “no one is there” on the other end of the conversation.

I’ve concluded that, for most of us, effective listening is not as easy as talking.

We all know from experience that talking can get us in trouble in our marriages. But attentive listening encourages and communicates that you value one another and are connecting with the love of your life.

The Scriptures remind and implore us, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Those are some of the most important words you will ever hear for improving your marriage. Because usually we are slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger!

If you can become a better listener, you will experience less tension in your marriage. And with conflicts overseas we all have enough tension in our lives right now … our marriages don’t need to be the launch point of the next war. We need to keep and preserve the peace.

Did you take a communications or speech course in high school or college? That course most likely taught you the basics of public speaking. The problem is, most of us have had little training in knowing how to listen. We know how to debate, argue, and win our points, but we are neophytes at really hearing what someone else is saying.

As a result, poor listening habits show up in several forms:

Bad habit #1: Pseudolistening. The husband is often guilty here. After a long day, he comes home with his mind still whirling from events at work. Over dinner, his wife comments, “Did you know Janelle has a new job?”


“She will be moving to Florida next week.”


“She’s going there to rob banks.”


“You aren’t listening, are you?”

“Uh-uh.” Busted!

Pseudolistening isn’t listening at all. We’ve all heard of “fake news” … this is “fake listening.” You may be home, but you’re not really there. You will soon be in trouble with your spouse, if you don’t mentally arrive home soon and truly listen.

Bad habit #2: Selective listening. A problem with learning to listen well is that all of us can listen at least five times faster than anyone can talk. While your spouse is trying to express something important, you may be thinking of things you want to do around the house … or sneaking a peak at your smartphone and pondering phone calls you have to make or texts you want to send. Or you may drift off into that well-known territory truly called “NO MAN’S LAND.”

Another form of selective listening can occur when you’re having an argument. You listen only for what you want to hear, thinking, “Aha! Weak reasoning there. I’ll nail my spouse to the wall on that one.” With selective listening, you’re not trying to hear what he is saying; you’re building your case instead of building the bridge of understanding.

Bad habit #3: Protective listening. The protective listener doesn’t want to hear much at all, especially something threatening. Your spouse try to tell you things for months, but you’ve insulated your heart from hearing. Every time the topic is raised you change the subject, act bored or annoyed, or employ a delay tactic like, “I don’t want to talk about that now.”

You don’t need hearing aids, but you may need aid in hearing.

Bad habit #4: Surface listening. This form of listening concentrates on hearing just enough to keep the conversation going but not enough to truly connect emotionally with your spouse. A husband may pour out his heart about a dilemma at work, and then his wife says, “Sounds like you had a bad day! Oh, did you remember to take the clothes to the cleaner this morning?”

Bad habit #5: Leap frogging! Your spouse is talking, but you think you’ve heard this before and so you jump to the conclusion and leap into the conversation by speaking too soon and not seeking to understand what he/she may be trying to say.

The reality is bad habits die a long slow death, if they ever die at all.

I’ve read that breaking a habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. But true followers of Christ has a big time advantage. When it comes to bad habits, we’re not helpless because we has the Helper, the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit indwells every person who has trusted Christ as Savior and Lord of his life. He was sent by God to guide us into truth, to teach and equip us in living life God’s way. And He convicts us when we sin, helping us turn away from wrongdoing.

So here’s the question: If you are a believer, you are not powerless to change a bad habit like “fake listening.” Do you believe the Holy Spirit can teach you how to be a better listener?

I want to challenge you with five great habits that will make you a highly effective listener.

You must learn to put away your poor listening habits and give your spouse your undivided attention. Ultimately, inadequate communication will cause great harm and bring the emotional death of a marriage—whether or not the couple actually divorces.

So I want to give five great habits for you to work on over the next 18 to 254 days!

Great habit #1: Enlist God in your quest to become a better listener. As I mentioned earlier, ask the Helper to help you do what you find impossible to do in your own power. Look back over the five bad habits above and pick one that you’d like to ask the Holy Spirit to help you break.

And if you want to truly build a marriage that reflects Christ to your family and the world, begin praying every day together for help. In most cases it won’t be instant, but in a matter of weeks you and your spouse will experience a spiritual renewal in your lives and marriage.

Great habit #2: Give the gift of focused attention. We are a nation of distracted people whose attention span is getting shorter and shorter, even less than a goldfish.

Think for a moment of what competes for your attention each day: children, spouse, work demands, cluttered desks, “breaking news” on your screens; a phone call from a family member or friend whose life is spiraling out of control … and even pets!

I became so aware of this in my own life that I determined that I was going to break free from that which distracted me.

  • I don’t take my phone to dinner (or I turn it off) with Barbara so I won’t look at it while we are talking and dining.

  • I try to find ways of having face-to-face conversations and looking her in the eyes.

  • Barbara once sent me a “memo” to turn off the TV in the evenings. I was doing much better until the war in Ukraine broke out.

  • I scoot closer to her to listen to her and what she has to say, especially if I recognize that she needs encouragement.

  • And if she is communicating she is discouraged, I’ll go near her to give her a gentle hug, touch her hand, or just hold her in my arms. Without saying a word, I’ve found ways to let her know that I’m hearing her.

Great habit #3 for husbands: Listen to truly understand. As 1 Peter 3:7 says, “Husbands … live with your wives in an understanding way …”

About 20 years into our marriage, I realized that when Barbara had shared a need with me, I usually moved immediately into the “FIX IT” mode of leadership.

I discovered she didn’t need me to fix the problem every time. She shared that she needed me to hear what she was experiencing, to understand what she was feeling, and to express empathy for what she was feeling. She wanted me to say, “I’m sorry for how that impacted you. That must have hurt.”

I saw that I needed to stop the words that came so naturally: “What can I do to resolve this problem?” It was interesting because that was a portion of what I was paid to do at work … resolve issues. But that wasn’t what Barbara needed. She needed me to understand how her challenges were impacting her.

It was an important pivot point in our marriage. I was clueless. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do. Barbara had the courage to share with me where she felt I was missing her, and I really did hear her.

Great habit #4 for wives: Listen with respect. Ephesians 5:33 tells us, “… and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

Not long ago, when I was working on unpacking what it meant to understand Barbara, I began to notice that she had develop a habit of interrupting me as I was talking. She was stepping on my words. I began to feel disrespected.

At first I decided to not be petty and focus on what was right about Barbara (she really is a great wife and friend) and our marriage. But it got worse, even occurring when we were out to dinner with family or friends. I didn’t like how her interruptions were impacting me.

So we found an undistracted time when we could talk and process what was going on. Like me she was clueless about what she was doing. It was yet another pivot point where after healthy discussion back and forth the issue was exposed and she asked for forgiveness, which I gave her.

Great habit #5: Develop the fine art of asking questions. Great questions act like crowbars to dislodge thoughts and emotions from another person’s heart and can open up communication. Use these crowbars gently and wisely. Asking the right questions is particularly valuable if you’re married to a person who is reserved and has a hard time opening up.

Questions like:

  • What are your three greatest needs right now?

  • What do you find most fulfilling about being a husband? A dad?

  • What do you find most fulfilling about being a wife? A mom?

  • What’s one habit I have in communicating with you that you wish I’d change?

  • Describe an interaction we’ve had when you felt understood. Why?

  • What makes you truly feel understood?

  • What is one thing about me that you’d like to see me grow in understanding

Gain all of the skills you can to become a better listener. Then genuinely listen to your spouse to understand. Saint Francis of Assisi was never married, but he gave all married couples golden advice when he prayed, “Lord, may I seek to understand more than to be understood.”

An attentive listener will bring answers to that prayer.

For practical application: What is one of the habits above that you need to focus on for the next seven days? Don’t tell your spouse, just do it. After the week is over, write down what you learned. After you’ve both completed the assignment, find a private moment where you can share what you’ve learned.

If you enjoyed this article, you might check out these FamilyLife Today interviews with David Delk on “Cherishing Your Spouse,” “Making Your Spouse Your Priority,” and “68 Words to Change Your Marriage.


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