The Everyday Challenge to Communicate Successfully with Your Mate

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It was a beautiful June morning where we live in Michigan, a great time to be eating breakfast on the patio in our backyard filled with colorful flowers and overlooking a beautiful watery marsh covered with lily pads and cattails. I was just finishing my bowl of cereal when Sarah came out, her Bible and devotional books in hand. The moment I saw her, I said, “I’m leaving.” No “Good morning” or even a “Hi.” Just “I’m leaving.”

Was I angry with Sarah? Not at all. I was just remembering other occasions when she had found me on the patio and had said lightheartedly, “I find a spot I enjoy, and then you take it.” Anticipating she was about to say this again, I quickly sought to reassure her that I was about to make my exit and not usurp her precious quiet-time retreat. I saw no need for any formalities like “Good morning” or even “Hi!” Besides, I was sure she would know exactly what I was talking about.

But what did Sarah hear when I announced, “I’m leaving”? She wasn’t thinking of how I might intrude on her quiet time; she interpreted my words much differently and simply replied, “Don’t worry. I’m not coming out here to talk to you.”

Was Sarah offended because I had uttered “I’m leaving” so abruptly? No. Instead she was remembering many other occasions when I had to dash off, so she thought I was letting her know I did not have time to talk to her at that moment.

In other instances, this could have bothered her, but in this instance she was trying to assure me that having a conversation was not on her mind. But Sarah’s response was not what I expected. I thought she would say, “Thanks for giving up the patio. I was planning to have my quiet time now.” Instead she had told me not to worry because she had not come out to talk to me. She had misinterpreted what I meant by “I’m leaving,” and I was taken aback.

I could have reacted in different ways, a lot of them negative. Such small, seemingly meaningless remarks can cause questions to leap into one’s mind: What does she mean by saying she doesn’t want to talk to me? Was that some sort of subtle dig? Am I in trouble and don’t know it—again?

On the spot I decided to clarify things, so I looked at her and said casually, “Why did you say that? Did you think I said, ‘I’m leaving’ because I didn’t want to talk to you?” My remark, in the form of a question, can be called feedback. I fed back in my own words what I thought she seemed to be saying to me. The fact that my feedback was in the form of a question is important. I was inviting Sarah to speak—to tell me why she had said what she said. And Sarah did just that: “Well, that’s why you told me you were leaving, wasn't it?"

Note that Sarah gave me feedback with a question of her own. By listening carefully, I quickly saw she had completely misread my “I’m leaving” remark. Now I had a choice: get defensive (How could she even think such a thing?) or gently try to correct the misunderstanding.

I chose Door Number Two and carefully clarified: “No, that’s not what I meant at all. I know you have been having your quiet time out here. You have kidded me about moving in on your favorite spot. When I saw you coming, I wanted to assure you I wasn’t taking your spot at all and, in fact, I was just leaving. Can you see this is what I meant?”

I paused to let Sarah respond, and her puzzled look turned into a big smile as she said, “Oh! I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Thanks for thinking of me. I do love it out here. Just sitting here makes me feel so blessed.” With clarification made and possible conflict averted, I finished my last bite of All-Bran, arose—bowl in hand—and went into the house to get ready for work. Sarah settled down with her Bible and devotional books to share the patio and backyard solely with some birds that had landed on some cattails in the marsh a few yards away.

The scene I just described is a simple one, but not unfamiliar. In this case both of us had misunderstood the other’s intentions, quickly done a bit of mind reading, and jumped to certain conclusions. Welcome to marriage! Welcome to the Everyday Challenge to communicate successfully with your mate!

-Dr. E

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe a time when your spouse completely misinterpreted an innocent comment you made. Did the misinterpretation cause an unnecessary argument? How was it resolved? Could it have been resolved better than it was?

  2. Why is it necessary that we intentionally try to speak more clearly exactly what it is we are trying to communicate, rather than assume our spouse can read our mind?

  3. Emerson mentioned that his “feedback” to Sarah was in the form of a question (as was hers to him). Why is that important?

  4. Too often, couples choose Door Number One and get defensive with each other, or perhaps even storm off, leaving the conversation angry, instead of taking Door Number Two and working right then and there to clarify the obvious misunderstanding. Why do we so often choose those first two options? What can be difficult about Door Number Two?