Pick out a board game—any game will do. Now take off the lid, turn it over, and search for these words: “Roll the dice to see who goes first. Play proceeds clockwise … “

All games include directions to make sure everyone knows whose turn it is. But conflict, as you recall, is a game without rules. In a disagreement, it isn’t always easy to know who goes first, who comes next, and who just got left out.

There’s a simple set of instructions that can help create order out of this chaos. In the game of conflict, the order of play goes like this: Listen long; then speak short—and don’t forget to pass the dice.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. Being a good listener is hard. When you do it right, the game proceeds nicely and both of you get to play; when you spend too much time speaking to listen well, each of you thinks it’s his turn and both players are scrambling for the dice.

Here are some helpful suggestions about listening to improve the order of play in your next disagreement.

Listen Up!

James 1:19 gives us a simple order of priority for communication. “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” In James’s perspective we make two common errors in a conflict: We speak too soon, and we get mad too fast. Slow it down, he says—but there’s one thing that definitely needs to shift to a higher gear: our listening.

We tend to think of listening in a passive sense—as something that happens to us, like tasting or feeling. We don’t have to do anything; it just happens. Not so. Listening is an active skill, and there are things we can do to become more skillful listeners.

Listen with everything you’ve got.

Someone once said that a good definition of “eternity” is to listen to a 5-year-old recount the plot of this neat movie he saw. Every parent knows that listening—real listening—is hard work. It requires energy, focus, and endurance—things that are always in short supply. But every parent will also tell you that listening is some of the most important work a parent can do.

No one loves hard labor, and it’s only human nature to work for shortcuts. When it comes to listening, we’ve all learned dozens of ways to look like we’re listening while our mind is really picking flowers somewhere else. You’re a master of the out-of-body experience, and your mate knows how to recognize it. There are telltale signs: Your eyes glaze over like a walleyed pike, or you begin to hum the theme song from Friends, or you start feeling around for the TV remote. When you do, you might as well strap on a flashing neon sign that screams, “I DON’T CARE!”

When you have real work to do, you buckle down and do it. No distractions, no interruptions—you’ve got work to do. We need to treat the work of listening the same way.

The next time you’ve got some listening to do, turn off the TV. Scoot forward and sit on the edge of the sofa. Lock eyes with your spouse like a tractor beam and refuse to look away. And when you find your mind occasionally drifting off to the putting green, make a practice of saying, “Hold it. I missed what you said. Would you repeat that last sentence?”

If you’ll do these things, even when you and your mate disagree, you’ll find that you still get bonus points for caring and for trying—and a few extra points can make all the difference.

Listen with an open mind.

We sometimes listen only for the points that confirm what we already believe. That means we approach a discussion with a lot of assumptions—about the way our mate thinks, what he really wants, and why he acts the way he does. Sometimes our assumptions are so stubbornly entrenched that we’re unwilling to consider any thoughts to the contrary. We hear only what we want to hear, and our spouse’s words are like a rock skipping across our mental pond, making contact only at pre-selected points.

Your mate wants to be thought of as a human being, not as a predictable formula. The next time you and your mate have a discussion, try to imagine that you are looking at a perfect stranger wearing a mask of your mate. Expect to hear something new, something that doesn’t fit with what you already know. Tell yourself that you are engaging in a cross-cultural experience—because, in point of fact, that’s exactly what marriage is. You’ll find that a simple change of attitude can help you to listen with an open mind.

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Listen with your heart, not just your head.

Some of us listen like court reporters, staring stone-faced at our spouse while we dutifully record her comments. We listen like students in a boring classroom lecture—but she isn’t giving a lecture; she’s sharing her heart. She wants to know more than if you got the words right; she wants to know if you got the feeling behind the words.

That’s why it helps to listen reflexively—that means to think of listening as a two-way street. Nod your head, give a sympathetic sigh, or throw in a little “Wow!” or “Really?” from time to time—anything to let her know that there’s still someone on the other end of the line, and that you not only hear her words but feel them too.

Listen to what isn’t being said.

Communication scholars talk about high- and low-context relationships. In a low-context relationship, we count on words to do the talking for us, and we use them freely and directly. The American culture as a whole is a low-context culture; when a group of Americans gathers for a meeting and someone leaves the door open, we simply say, “Close the door.”

But the Japanese culture is traditionally high context. Japanese count on the context surrounding the words to help get the message across: gestures, facial expressions, and minute variations in tone of voice. They communicate more indirectly, often through hints and suggestions, and they expect one another to understand what is meant when someone says, “It would be nice if the door were shut.”

There are high- and low-context communicators in marriage, too. Low-context partners are verbal communicators; they say what they mean and mean what they say, and they depend on words to carry the message. Their motto is, “If you want to know what I mean, listen to what I say.”

But for high-context spouses, that level of directness feels so blunt, so demanding, so obvious. They prefer to let out a sigh, or roll their eyes, or drop a little hint. High-context partners use words too, but they’re also nonverbal communicators. Their dictum: “If you want to know what I mean, watch everything I do.”

When nonverbal spouses listen to their verbal partners, they have a tendency to read into what’s being said. Why did he say it like that? Why was he standing that way? Why did he drop his voice just then? Nonverbal listeners are skilled at finding the message behind the words—even when there isn’t one there.

But verbal listeners have the opposite problem. Because of their preference for words, they often overlook much of what their mate is trying to communicate by ignoring her body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. “But that’s not what you said. What you said is …”

Sometimes the meat of a message comes through everything but the words. If you want to become a more skillful listener, try lending an ear to what isn’t being said.

Listen until she’s satisfied.

We tend to listen only until we understand, or until it sounds familiar, or until we decide what to say next. We tend to listen only until we’re satisfied—but this isn’t about you. She’s the one who’s speaking now, and you need to let her talk until she’s said what she wants to say in the way she wants to say it.

Remember, conflict is not only about facts but feelings. We don’t just want to be listened to; we want to feel heard, and that takes time. It means we all need to become more leisurely listeners. If you listen only until you’ve got the facts, you may have missed entirely what she really wants to say.

Excerpted from Fight Fair by Tim and Joy Downs. Copyright © 2003 by Tim and Joy Downs. Published by Moody Press. Used with permission.