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

I’d certainly think!


The last couple of years have seen me go back to school on how to truly listen and understand her. Think 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 the conflict in Europe 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 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.