Hello, anybody home?

By Louis McBurney

How to listen to your family, even when you don’t feel like it

“You never listen to me!” The words came choking out through Andrea’s tears. I suddenly felt off balance. What was happening here? I’d been Andrea’s dad for 15 years and a psychiatrist for eight. I was a professional listener trained in reading nonverbal signals, hearing between the lines, giving undivided attention and offering empathetic responses.

So naturally I was tempted to explain away her accusation. Andrea was teenager – she wasn’t supposed to feel understood by her dad.

But for once I kept quiet and let Andrea talk. Her story came out slowly, punctuated by soft sobs of distress. She started to talk about her sadness and sense of worthlessness. She felt abandoned by her friends and rejected by me. At times, she said, she didn’t want to live.

I wanted to stop Andrea from talking so I could tell her she had no reason to feel the way she did. It was hard to listen, but I was determined to hear her out. When she finished, I told her of my concern and held her in my arms.

After a few minutes the tears dried. “Thanks, Dad, I’ll be okay,” Andrea said. Then with a little smile she added, “And thanks for not giving me a lecture.”

That incident jolted me. It highlighted a gulf between my “professional” listening and what I did at home. I’d spend six or seven hours of effective listening in our counseling ministry in Marble, Colorado, and then arrive at home – 300 feet away – distant, distracted and deaf.

My story may not surprise you. It may even sound familiar. In my counseling practice and retreat center, I’ve heard similar accounts from hundreds of ministers and their spouses.

Why we don’t listen

“By the time I’ve listened to unhappy, complaining and demanding people all day,” one minister told me, “I’m worn out. I don’t want to hear another word.”

There’s no denying or escaping the reality of fatigue. It takes tremendous energy to listen effectively for hours. As one pastor recently said, “I feel totally wiped out when I have to relate to a bunch of people for eight hours. I’d much rather be out there splitting firewood. Then when I come home and face Joyce and our three kids, all wanting my attention, I just want to run!”

“And he does run,” his wife agrees. “Straight to the TV or his computer! We may not see him all evening.”

I hear about another common frustration from male ministers who say they do try to listen, assuming their wives want solutions or opinions: Nothing the husbands say seems to help. “I don’t listen because I have no idea what she wants,” one minister admits.

Joe, a pastor in a recent retreat group, could speak for many men when he said, “I’m a problem solver. I get paid for that. Staff members or parishioners come to get my advice. They tell me their problems, and I give them answers. They accept it, thank me profusely and leave.”

But, he added, “I come home, and Ann starts talking. I try to figure out what the problem is, and when I think I’ve got it, I give her my solution or point out why she shouldn’t feel the way she does. Somehow that isn’t accepted. I begin to get really frustrated. ‘Well, you asked what I think, didn’t you? I told you, now you’re not satisfied. What do you want me to say?'” I can assure you Ann walks away just as frustrated as Joe.

The notion that attentive listening is the solution leaves many men bewildered. What good could just listening do? Yet the message I hear from my wife, Melissa, is the same one I heard from Andrea and hear over and over from women in counseling groups I lead: When a woman feels listened to, she feels valued.

Another reason ministers don’t listen at home is that they don’t want criticism. A husband dragging his weary carcass through the front door may feel battered from the battles of the day. When his family greets him with a list of complaints, the walls go up. One pastor confessed to me that on many evenings he’d get heartburn as he drove home. Often he’d turn away a block from his house to go make hospital calls. He couldn’t face the barrage of criticism he knew was waiting.

It’s no surprise that his avoidance seemed like abandonment to his family. By the time he did come home, there wasn’t much love and admiration waiting, and his expectation of being met with anger was usually realized. The family was caught in a truly vicious cycle.

Learning to reconnect

The good news is that you don’t need to stay stuck in those spirals. I realized I could bring my ears home with me on that short stroll from the office to home. A few adjustments in attitude and behavior have helped.

The first change begins each day at the door of the retreat center. When I close it behind me, I consciously choose to leave the day’s cares inside. I’ve discovered that they’ll be faithfully waiting for me in the morning.

The second thing I do is mentally shift gears from “Louis the therapist” to “Louis the husband and dad.” I do that first by looking toward the nearby Rocky Mountains and thanking God for all the grace in my life. (You may have to marvel at the majesty of the freeway or the miracle of emission controls, but you can always find tokens of grace if you look for them.) Then I remember some positive quality about Melissa and our three children, such as their creativity or sense of humor. Finally I reflect on what the day’s schedule had held for them and think of ways I can show interest in their lives.

By then, I’m home and in a far different frame of mind.

I have to admit that I get some important help from Melissa. She recognizes my needs as I come home from work. When they were still living at home, even our children learned to give me some space and time to wind down. They understood my need for their love and affection and realized I wouldn’t disappear. So I could usually expect a period of quiet before they presented their needs.

About now you may be saying to yourself, “I thought this article was about listening.” Indeed it is! The most important steps toward good listening are becoming aware of the barriers and learning to create the most friendly environment possible. The rest is just plain hard work. These guidelines may help:

1. Evaluate your listening style.

Once you recognize the various types of listening (and the ones you tend to use), you’ll be better prepared to shift gears between office and home. In Connecting With Self and Others (Interpersonal Communications Programs Inc., Littleton, Colo., 1992), authors Sherrod Miller, Daniel Wackman, Elam Nunnally and Phyllis Miller identify three basic styles of listening:

  • Persuasive listening happens when you listen only long enough to formulate your response and then interrupt in order to control the situation. (That was typical of my parenting style. Andrea was right.)
  • Directive listening occurs when you seek to clarify the information by leading the other person through your selected questions. (Ministers, physicians and teachers often ask questions that will get to the information they want to know.)
  • Attentive listening is aimed at discovering the other person’s ideas or feelings. You encourage the speaker without directing the conversation. (This is excellent for establishing rapport and understanding. It is rarely tried, but a relief to experience.)

2. Practice giving undivided attention.

Set aside the newspaper, turn off the television (don’t just mute the sound), log off from the computer (I’m told this can be done.) Then turn to face the other person, make eye contact and perhaps tell the person how glad you are that he or she wants to spend time with you. A physical touch isn’t out of the question.

The hard part of this seems to lie in your attitudes. I remember the wisdom of one sports fan. He said, “When I’m at home and there’s an important game on the tube, I get totally focused on watching. It finally dawned on me that I’d seen it all before: great passes, three pointers, slam dunks, chip shots for birdies. The really important game I’d been missing was the one going on in my own marriage and family. That made clicking off the TV much easier.” He paused and grinned. “Besides, a really fantastic play would be replayed about a dozen times on ESPN.”

If you absolutely can’t be interrupted (a situation more rare that we might admit), you can say, “Give me 30 minutes and then let’s talk.”

3. Learn to close the communication cycle.

Check with the other person about what you have understood him or her to say, and keep at it until you have it right. (One effective method is to paraphrase what the person said.)

I’m amazed at how distorted my interpretations may be. Of course, that’s probably because the person didn’t say what he or she meant, but I’ve learned that pointing out this fact buys me nothing in the relationship market. (“Why didn’t you say so the first time?” is worthless currency.) You may feel awkward when you first try giving feedback and making sure you heard correctly, but eating with a fork must have felt awkward once.

4. Accept responsibility for your responses.

Whenever you really listen to another person, you will be affected to some extent. You hear and interpret the words and nonverbal signals. Depending on the context and the relationship, you may misinterpret the message. In our counselling groups, we’ve seen many individuals “hear” a negative message when everyone else in the room heard an affirmation.

Whatever your interpretations are, you can choose how you respond. Understanding this process can help you connect successfully with your mate, too.

We can take a cue from theologian Paul Tournier, who talked about how he learned to listen to his wife, Nelly, and to be silent before God in his relationship with her:

“Nelly had written, ‘You know, you are my teacher, my doctor, my psychologist, even my pastor, but you are not my husband.’

“It took me months to see and understand this, and years to see its full significance . . . . Even my religion consisted of ideas about God, about Jesus, about man, and salvation — dogma. And as for my wife, I made speeches to her, I gave her lessons in psychology, philosophy and everything else . . . . But my feelings, my anxieties and my despairs, I was unable to talk about. It was all of this that came welling up in our long silences . . . . [That] transformed our relationship! I learned to really listen to my wife.” (“Glue for a Medical Marriage,” quoted in Physician magazine, March 1991)

Ironic, isn’t it? Ministers and counsellors are trained to listen attentively to anyone who walks in their office doors. But often the best way to listen to our families is to leave all of our professionalism behind when we walk out that same door and head home.


Louis McBurney, Ph.D., and his wife, Melissa, established Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, as a centre for ministers and Christian workers.

From Pastor’s Family magazine, Oct/Nov 1996. Used by permission from the author.