Words are beautiful. They can communicate love, gratitude, encouragement and support, which build, enhance, and connect two people at a very deep level. At the same time, words can wreak havoc. Words can convey anger, resentment, hatred and revenge, leaving misunderstanding, pain and destruction in its path. Effective communication is an art.

Yet there's more to communication than expressing words. Successful communication between two people, and in marriage especially, depends so much on the vital skills of active listening and empathetic listening. As we say in Psalms 40:7, "You have carved out for me ears."

Active listening requires you to listen with an open mind, uncluttered by inner dialogue. It takes fully focusing and understanding what the other person is saying, and not on formulating your response. Active listening is about climbing out of your shoes and into the shoes of the speaker.

When we really listen and acknowledge another person's pain, resentment or inner conflict, we give them a chance to talk more about what's troubling them. The more they express, the more relief they'll feel and the more clarity they'll gain. Ultimately, they are more capable of coping with their feelings and problems.

The trouble is that too often we tend to feel a sense of responsibility when listening to our spouse's trouble. Our task is not about fixing but understanding, accepting, and empowering them by helping them explore the situation. In effect, we are gently conferring the responsibility back to them. With our support, we allow them to work it through at their own pace. We help them think of options they haven't considered. And ultimately their decisions have to be their own; they will have to live with and implement them.

One way to listen actively is by asking questions. In a voice that does not convey confrontation but rather inquisitiveness, you can ask:

  • "What did you mean by….?"
  • "When did you first start feeling this way?"
  • "What about the incident bothered you the most?"
  • "How would you like this to be different?"

Empathetic listening is the act of taking into consideration the other person's perspective. It is the ability to understand your spouse's thoughts, feelings, and actions, and to communicate this understanding.

One way to show empathy is to repeat what your spouse says so that he or she will know you get what they're saying. You can also ask a question to see if you've fully understood. Be genuinely curious and that sense of wonderment will come through. When you empathize, your goal is to understand, not to argue or state your point of view. Reflect what your spouse says in a nonjudgmental way so as to truly grasp the essence of what he or she is expressing, and, most of all, acknowledge that feeling.

Whether or not you agree with your spouse is irrelevant. Giving your spouse the chance to express, vent or clarify his thoughts, with you as an active listener, is the greatest gift.

These statements, expressed in a gentle tone of voice can be helpful:

  • "It sounds like…"
  • "I just want to make sure that I understand what you're saying."

Keep in mind that there's a difference between empathy and sympathy. For instance, while sympathy focuses on how I feel when I hear what my spouse is saying, i.e. sorry, pity, etc., empathy is zeroing in on how my spouse feels. Empathy empowers, sympathy dis-empowers. Sympathy subtly suggests that you're incapable and need my help to work things out. Empathy conveys the feeling that I am with you, I understand you, and I trust your ability to work things out.