--By H. Norman Wright

         Each of us carries on conversations with ourselves daily. This doesn't mean that we are odd or on the verge of spacing out. It's normal to talk to oneself. After you read this, however, I hope you will be much more conscious of your self talk. You will probably be shocked by the amount of time you spend on inner conversations & how those conversations affect your marriage.
         Are you aware that:
         --Most of your emotions--such as anger, depression, guilt, worry--are initiated & escalated by your self talk?
         --The way you behave toward your spouse is often determined by your self talk & not by his or her behaviour?
         --What you say & how you say it is a direct expression of your self talk?
         Self talk is the message you tell yourself about yourself, your spouse, your experiences, the past, the future, God etc. It is a set of evaluating thoughts about facts & events that happen to you. As events are repeated, many of your thoughts, & thus your emotional responses, become almost automatic. Sometimes the words you tell yourself are never put together in clear statements. They may be more like impressions.
         Let's consider for a moment this exchange between a husband & wife & discover the self talk that prompted it.
         Saturday morning, 11:00 a.m.
         Wife: It's about time you got up. It looks like you're going to waste the entire day!
         Husband: (Looking a bit startled) What's with you? I'm just taking my time getting up & enjoying a day off.
         Wife: That's just it. You're around here so rarely & half the day is shot! By the time you get dressed & cleaned up, lunch will be over & nothing has been accomplished!
         Husband: Who said I was getting dressed & cleaned up? The only thing I want to accomplish is a cup of coffee, the paper & the football game on TV!
         Wife: What? Then the whole day is shot to...
I don't get a day off. There's a whole list of work to be done here. When are you going to do it?
         Husband: What? I suppose you've been saving up a list of work projects again. Why don't you give me some notice ahead of time? If I wanted to work today, I could go into the shop & get overtime, plus some peace & quiet!
         What is happening in this conversation? First of all, each person has an unspoken expectation for Saturday. One for work & one for pleasure. Many problems such as this could be eliminated if individuals clarified their expectations in advance. Let's look at the wife's self talk at this point. She was expecting her husband to accomplish a number of tasks on Saturday. She got up at 6:30. Note her inner conversation & the progression.
         7:30: "I hope he gets up pretty soon. I'd like to get started on these projects. With the kids away today we can get a lot done."
         8:15: "Boy! I don't hear a sound. Well, I'm going to start work in the yard. He'll probably hear me & then he can join me."
         9:15: "What time is it? 9:15! I don't believe it! He's sleeping away the morning. Who does he think he is? How thoughtless! I ought to go in there & wake him up!"
         10:00: "Just because he has no work at the plant he thinks he's entitled to sack out. What about me? When do I ever get to do this? He makes me mad! He probably knows I want him to take care of those chores he's been putting off. He just wants to ignore them & me! Boy, is he going to hear from me. I'll let him sleep but he's going to pay a price for it!"
         10:45: "And I was going to cook his favourite meal & dessert tonight. Fat chance of that. How could he be so insensitive? Look at all I do for him!"
         What type of emotions do these statements arouse? What kind of behaviours do you think these statements prompt? What kind of communication is happening?
         Suppose, instead, the wife chose self talk such as the following:
         "I wish he would get up. I think I'll check & see if he's just resting or sleeping."
         "I'm not sure he's going to get up in time to do much today. I'd better revise my list & then ask him if he could help me with these two chores after lunch."
         "I am a bit upset with him but I have to admit I didn't tell him I wanted him to work today. Next time I'll talk it over with him before the weekend."
         "I could serve him breakfast in bed when he wakes up. That'll knock his socks off! When's the last time I did that?"
         Two different styles of self talk. The choice is ours whether to make our self talk positive or negative.

How to control your thoughts. One way to eliminate automatic thoughts is to learn to counter or answer them. Countering is bringing your thoughts to trial & examining the evidence. But you can do this only if you are aware of them. You need to catch the thoughts that come into your mind, & then, when you are aware of them, respond with a conscious thought. You need not settle for either your automatic thoughts or those you consciously work up. You can choose precisely what you will think about.
Power to change. Scriptures indicate that our mind is often the basis for the difficulties & problems that we experience.
         A Christian does not have to be dominated by the thinking of the old mind, the old pattern. He has been set free. God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, & of love, & of a sound mind (see 2Tim.1:7). Soundness means that the new mind can do what it is supposed to do. It can fulfill its function. What can you do? Let your mind be filled with the mind of Christ.

         One of the greatest gifts one person can give to another is the gift of listening. It can be an act of love & caring. Too often conversations today between married couples are dialogues of the deaf. If a husband listens to his wife, she feels, "I must be worth hearing." If a wife ignores her husband, he thinks, "I must be dull & boring."
         What do we mean by listening? What do we mean by hearing? Is there a difference? Hearing is basically to gain content or information for your own purposes. Listening is caring for & being empathic toward the person who is talking. Hearing means that you are concerned about what is going on inside
you during the conversation. Listening means you are trying to understand the feelings of the other person & are listening for his sake.
         Let me give you a threefold definition of listening. Listening means that when your spouse is talking to you:
         1. You are not thinking about what you are going to say when he/she stops talking. You are not busy formulating your response. You are concentrating on what is being said & are putting into practice Proverbs 18:13. ("He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly & shame unto him.")
         2. You are accepting what is being said without judging what he/she is saying or how he/she says it. You may fail to hear the message if you are thinking that you don't like your spouse's tone of voice or the words he/she is using. You may react on the spot to the tone & content & miss the
meaning. Perhaps he/she hasn't said it in the best way, but why not listen & then come back later when both of you are calm & can discuss it with more proper wording & tone of voice? Acceptance does not mean you have to agree with the content of what is said. Rather, it means that you understand that what your spouse is saying is something he/she feels.
         3. You should be able to repeat what your spouse has said & what you think he/she was feeling while speaking to you. Real listening implies an obvious interest in your spouse's feelings & opinions & an attempt to understand them from his/her perspective.
         You can learn to listen, for it is a skill to be learned. Your mind & ears can be taught to hear more clearly. Your eyes can be taught to see more clearly. But the reverse is also true. You can learn to
hear with your eyes & see with your ears.
         Because of my retarded son, Matthew, who does not have a vocabulary, I have learned to listen to him with my eyes. Because of Matthew I have learned to listen to what my counselees cannot put into words. I have learned to listen to the message behind the message--the hurt, the ache, the frustration, the loss of hope, the fear of rejection, the feeling of betrayal, the rejection, the joy, the delight, the promise of change. I reflect upon what I see on a client's face, his posture, walk, pace, & tell him what I see. This gives him an opportunity to explain further what he is thinking & feeling. He knows I'm tuned in to him.
Components of communication. Listening which springs from caring builds closeness, reflects love, & is an act of grace. Sensitive listening & hearing are open mine shafts to intimacy.
Obstacles to listening. In order for caring listening to occur we need to be aware of some of the common listening obstacles to communication.
         Defensiveness is a common obstacle. We are busy in our minds thinking up a rebuttal, an excuse, or an exception to what our spouse is saying. In doing this we miss the message. There are a variety of defensive responses.
         1. Perhaps we reach a premature conclusion. "All right, I know just what you're going to say. We've been through this before & it's the same old thing."
         2. Or we may read into his/her words our own expectations, or project onto another person what we would say in the same situation.
         Two other defensive indicators may be 3. rehearsing our responses or, 4. responding to gunpowder words. Rehearsing a response (as well as other defensive postures) is not what the Scripture is calling us to do as a listener. "He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly & shame unto him."--Prov.18:13.
         Gunpowder words hook you into a negative defensive response. They create an inner explosion of emotions. Gunpowder includes, "That's crude"; "That's just like a
woman (or man); "You're always late"; "You never ask me what I think"; "You're becoming just like your mother." Not only do we react to gunpowder words but we may consciously choose to use some which makes it difficult for our spouse to listen. What are the gunpowder words that set you off? What is your spouse's list of gunpowder words? Certain selected words can cut & wound.
         Our own personal biases will affect how well we listen more than we realise. Some tones or phrases are enjoyable to listen to, whereas others may be annoying.
         Some people are distracted in their listening because of the sex of the person who is speaking. Our expectations of what a man shares & doesn't share & what a woman should or should not share will influence us.
         We may listen more or less attentively to someone who is in a position over us, under us, or in a prestigious position.
         One person hears with optimism & another with pessimism. I hear the bad news & you hear the good news.
         Hearing what someone else is saying may bring to the surface feelings about similar problems we are facing. Our listening may be hindered if we are fearful that our own emotions may be activated too much. A man may feel very ill at ease as his emotions begin to surge to the surface.
         Another obstacle which hurts the listening process is similar to defensiveness--it is interrupting. Your mind wanders & races ahead. You say, "Hold it. I've got a dozen ideas cooking because of what you said. Let me tell you some of them..." It is easy for our minds to wander, for we think at five times the rate we can speak. If a person speaks at 100 words a minute & you listen at 500, do you put your mind on hold or daydream the rest of the time? We process information faster than it can be verbalised, so we can choose to stay in pace with the speaker or let our minds wander.
         Timing is another common obstacle. Have you ever heard a comment such as this? "Talk? Now? At 2:30 in the morning?"
         Physical exhaustion presents another obstacle. Both mental & physical fatigue make it difficult to listen. There are times when you need to let your partner know that this is not a good time, but tell him/her when you
will be able to listen.
Steps to better listening. How can you become a better listener?
         Listen with your ears, your eyes, & your body. If your partner asks, "Are you listening to me?" & you say, "Yes" while walking away or fixing dinner or doing the dishes, perhaps you aren't really listening. Concentrate on the person & the message, giving your undivided attention. Turn off the appliance or TV when there is an important matter to talk about; set aside what you are doing & listen.
         1. Clarifying is one helpful response. This response reflects on the true meaning & the intention of what has been said. "I think what you're saying is that you trust me to keep my promise to you, but you are still a bit concerned about my being away just before your birthday."
         2. Observing is another skill. This response focuses upon the nonverbal or tonal quality of what your partner has said. "I noticed that your voice was dropping when you talked about your job."
         3. Another response is called reflective listening. A reflective statement attempts to pick up the feelings expressed. Usually a feeling word is included in the response, such as, "You seem quite sad (joyful, happy, delighted, angry, etc.) about that."
         4. Inquiring is yet another helpful response. An inquiry draws out more information about the meaning of what was said. A very simple response would be, "I would like you to tell me more if you can."
         In conclusion, here are Ten Commandments for Better Listening:
         I. On passing judgement. Thou shalt neither judge nor evaluate until thou hast truly understood. "Hold it right there, I've heard enough to know where you stand & you're all wet."
         II. On adding insights. Thou shalt not attribute ideas or contribute insights to those stated. "If you mean this, it will lead to there, & then you must also mean that."
         III. On assuming agreement. Thou shalt not assume that what you heard is what was truly said or what was really meant. "I know what you meant, no matter what you say now. I heard you with my own ears."
         IV. On drifting attention. Thou shalt not permit thy thoughts to stray or thy attention to wander. "When you said that, it triggered an interesting idea that I like better than yours."
         V. On closing the mind. Thou shalt not close thy mind to opposing thoughts, thy ears to opposite truths, thy eyes to other views. "After you said that, I didn't hear another thing you said."
         VI. On wishful hearing. Thou shalt not permit thy heart to rule thy mind, nor thy mind thy heart. "I just knew you were going to say that, I had it figured all along."
         VII. On multiple meanings. Thou shalt not interpret words except as they are interpreted by the speaker. "If I were to stop breathing, would I or would I not expire?"
         XIII. On rehearsing responses. Thou shalt not use the other's time to prepare responses of your own. "I can't wait until you need a breath! Have I got a comeback for you!"
         IX. On fearing challenge. Thou shalt not fear correction, improvement or change. "I'm talking faster & overwhelming you because I don't want to hear what you've got to say."
         X. On equality. Thou shalt not monopolise the conversation without giving thy mate a chance to be heard. And thou shalt express thyself too, rather than just clamming up or being silent when a response is necessary.
         Listen to your spouse in love. When you listen in love you are able to wait for the person to share his/her thoughts, feelings & what he or she really means.