I married a political science major — a political science major that loves to debate. And he married a passionate save-all-the-babies slightly irrational humanitarian. You can understand why my throat was sore the last time we discussed politics, religion, welfare, and the role government should play in our lives.
Despite disagreeing on at least as much as we agree on, we had a really awesome (and enlightening) conversation. But the truth is these discussions used to lead to raised voices, talking over each other, tears, and hysterics over the state of one’s sanity and the other’s soul.
So what’s changed? Well, in the last six-plus years we’ve been together (and the decade before that of heated friendly debates) we’ve grown a little, and we’ve learned the key to a productive disagreement. We’re not perfect, but the 16 years of practice sure has helped.
The Key to a Productive Disagreement
The key to productively disagreeing with your spouse — or really anyone — is to listen to understand not to respond.
When the other is talking we aren’t formulating all the reasons why they are wrong. Instead, we are listening to understand why they feel or think the way they do. We are following some Biblical advice. . .
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, – James 1:19 (emphasis added)
The Harm of Listening to Respond
When we are listening to respond — although, I’m not sure you can really classify that as listening — we are
- missing a chance to learn about the other person.
- not giving them the respect we desire.
- implying that our opinion matters more than theirs.
And all that leads to hurt feelings, unnecessary arguments, and a lack of trust.
The Benefits of Listening to Understand
But when we listen to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings, we are
- showing the other we care about what they have to say.
- learning more about the person we love.
- showing respect, practicing humility, and acknowledging we don’t know everything.
- listening how we want to be heard.
And this kind of listening increases trust and respect for each other. And, friend, it increases the chances that your partner will listen the same to you.
How to Start Being a Better Disagree-er
- Pray. Ask God to help you be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Pray James 1:19 over your spouse, too.
- Pay attention. Put down your iPhone, turn off the television, limit as many distractions as possible, and look the other person in the eye. (Rarely, do my husband and I get to talk without little ears and little, yet loud, mouths interrupting. By minimizing the distractions we can, we’re given ourselves a better chance at paying attention)
- Let them know you’re listening. Nod, smile, ask clarifying questions, and repeat what they said back to them to make sure you are understanding.
- Respond with grace. Don’t interrupt them when you do respond. Gracefully, yet assertively — you don’t have to be a pushover — share your thoughts and opinions.
- Find a middle ground. Even after you both have shared and listened to each other, you still may not agree. (This is the case with my husband and me on many topics including how to parent, when to take the garbage out, etc. . .) What do you do then? Respect each other’s opinions and find a middle ground.
Admittedly, it’s not always a four-step process. Some issues require a mediator or counselor to help you sort out and find that middle ground and respect. And that’s okay; there’es grace for that. But start from a place of wanting to understand and find a middle ground.
Productively disagreeing doesn’t mean that you will always get your way. It simply means that you care enough about your spouse to listen and to try to understand where they are coming from. And because of this, you will both benefit.