How to listen to
your family - even when you don't feel like it
by Louis McBurney
"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
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
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
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
"And he does run," his wife agrees. "Straight
to the TV or his computer! We may not see him all
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
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."
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
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
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
- 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
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
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:
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.
Family magazine, Oct/Nov 1996.
Louis McBurney, Ph.D., and his wife, Melissa, established Marble Retreat in Marble,
Colorado, as a centre for ministers and Christian workers.
Used by permission from the