Marital Communication That Works
Like many couples, Rob and Gina Flood had a lot to learn about healthy communication in marriage. They realized early on that communication wasn't about winning or losing, but about building up or tearing down. Together they share five communication tools that helped transform their marriage.
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Rob and Gina Flood realized early on that communication wasn’t about winning or losing, but about building up or tearing down. Together they share five communication tools that helped transform their marriage.
Marital Communication That Works
Bob: Maybe you’ve heard the proverb that says: “A gentle answer turns away”—what?—“wrath”; right? Rob Flood says that’s really true in marriage.
Rob: The direction of a conversation doesn’t typically belong to the person who starts it, but it belongs to the person who responds to it. I can say something in a harsh way, at a bad time, using the wrong words to Gina. If she responds—knowing I’m for her, even though I just totally messed it up—and her response is gentle or her response is [as] though I said it—not in the tone that I used—we’re not going to be in a conflict. It’s really hard to get in an argument with someone who won’t fight with you.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, March 31st. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We know that a soft answer can turn away anger or wrath. How can we get better at delivering soft answers? We’re going to talk more about that today with Rob and Gina Flood. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Don’t you think it would have been helpful, when you guys first got married,—
Dave: Yes; I don’t even know what you’re going to ask.
Ann: Yes; me, too. Yes, yes—the answer’s, “Yes.” [Laughter]
Dave: Any help for our marriage would have been helpful.
Bob: —in the first year-and-a-half, if there had been communication coaches—who came in and watched you do it—and then said: “Time out! Come over here. Huddle up,” and helped call a few plays? Wouldn’t that have been helpful?
Dave: Yes; they would’ve watched us for five minutes and said, “Just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it.” [Laughter]
Ann: That’s good.
Dave: I’m saying that for my wife. [Laughter]
Ann: Actually, there’s a lot of truth in that. [Laughter]
Dave: No, that was for both of us. We said some things in year one—talk about the power of words—that we’ve never forgotten, forty years later. You’ve got to be very careful.
Bob: You’ve forgiven, and you’ve reconciled, and you understand: “We were young,” “We were immature”; but those words don’t go away; do they?
Ann: I remember thinking, after a fight, “Does he really feel all of that about me?”; because we’d throw out words as ammunition, as shrapnel, as weapons. What happens is—we’re just beat up. Later, we think: “Wow! Does he hate me?”
Gina: What do we think is actually going to happen when we say those words? Do we think that our spouse is going to turn around and say, “You’re right. I’m so sorry.” That never happens.
Ann: Thank you for sharing that.
Dave: If only somebody would write a book on this. We need help.
Bob: We have got a couple of communication coaches joining us Rob and Gina Flood are with us. Welcome back.
Rob: Thank you very much.
Gina: Thank you.
Bob: Rob and Gina were part of FamilyLife® back in the first part of the 21st century. You joined here in 2001 and were here until 2006; is that right?
Rob: —2006 here; we finished up our time, 2007.
Dave: I’ve got a question for you. You sort of worked for Bob in content?
Rob: Yes, I did.
Dave: How was that? Let’s be really honest.
Rob: I’ll tell you how it was. It was fantastic. Bob was the kind of manager who would give you a nine month project, be really clear, and not check on you for nine months. But on nine months you better be ready. I loved that kind of freedom. I loved that kind of empowerment. I think it got the best out of me when I was here.
Bob: Rob did great work; he was a writer on our digital team. In fact, wrote an article, back then, that has been shared by a lot of folks; and it’s “The Five Communication Tools That Saved Our Marriage.”
Rob: That’s right.
Bob: That’s now at the heart of the book you’ve written, which is called With These Words, where you take these five communication tools. You’ve already shared with us this week that your first year-and-a-half—your communication was not very good. Did you get coaching or did you get on the job training that led you to get better?
Rob: We did not get coaching. It was on the job training that came through a few venues that did not coordinate with one another. A pastor and his wife who are to this day very careful with their words. It was their example. It was reading Paul Tripp’s War of Words that educated me on what happened on the last 18 months. It was the combination of those things and then just going to work together. Having the faith that God was in this to go and make mistakes together realizing we are putting back together something that our own hands have torn apart.
Bob: Did you start acknowledging to one another, “We’ve got work to do in this area”? Were you allowing one another the freedom to correct when you were making mistakes? Because you don’t just flip a switch and go, “We used to have bad communication; now we have good communication.” You’ve got patterns and habits that have been developed over years; they keep showing up—you say something and you go, “I shouldn’t have said that.” Were you at a point in your marriage, where you could say, “Sweetheart, we’ve agreed; that’s not how we want to talk to one another.”
Gina: In the beginning, it was saying words that were hurtful; but then repenting, and coming back and asking for forgiveness after we had repented, and then having that conversation again. Or laying that conversation aside because that area was just too tender: “Let’s lay that aside for a day or two, and we’ll come back at it again.”
Then, over time, as we learned one another—because we didn’t really care to learn one another—we didn’t really take the time to learn: “What is the best way I can say something to Rob, where he’s going to receive it?” “When should I be quiet?” Like you were saying, “Just because I think it doesn’t mean I should say it.” It’s a long—it’s a dance; it’s like a dance.
Bob: You were making the mistakes, but now there was grace instead of being isolation; is that right?
Rob: Yes; what we realized, really early on, in this restoration process was that our communication could not be about winning and losing; because that would always divide, because one of us wins and one of us loses. We realized our communication was either building something together or tearing something down. When there was a mistake that was made or a harsh word that was spoken, how I respond to that will determine whether something gets built up or torn down right now.
We learned, early on, that we can’t have a perfect accounting for every word; but we needed a bigger vision of what we were building; that allowed an offensive word to fall to the ground, and we didn’t have to respond to that.
Dave: I’ve always said—it’s in your book as well—“When you’re trying to resolve a conflict or communicate in a marriage—or in any case: with your kids/in a business setting—it’s about two things. One is skills.” Obviously, we’re going to talk about some of the things you say in your book about skills of learning how to communicate: timing and that kind of thing. “Another big part, which is huge”—that you just hit on—“is attitude—
Dave: —“an attitude that says: ‘I care for her,’ ‘I care for him,’ ‘So I’m going to be very careful how I speak to them, because the attitude is the foundation of the skill’”; right?
Talk about that; because you went from an attitude, early in your marriage, where words were like weapons; and now you’re talking like you got really careful with the skills of communication; but it was all based in an attitude. Talk about the attitude.
Rob: It goes to that shovel and rake when we realized—in the months leading up to the second Weekend to Remember and then at the Weekend to Remember—that we are part of building something bigger than us.
If it was all about me, in that moment, winning or losing, I may win the next 40 conflicts, and we’d be worse off at the end. We had to join together, realizing we’re going to have different ways of building this; but we’re a part of something. That was a major message that got through to us—the legacy message—not just: “What are we building now?” but “What are we building for the future?—for our kids and our grandkids.”
At that point, every conflict we had was not high stakes. Because if it was, we’d have to put all of our ammunition in it; because we have to win. But if we realize: “We’re going to have conversations for the rest of our lives together. Some of them are going to go great, and some of them aren’t. Some of them are going to feel like I lost; some of them are going to feel like I won. But the right paradigm is: ‘What are we building together?’”
What I’ve tried to capture is that there are actually ways/skills that we can incorporate in marriage that help us build.
Bob: Here’s how I talk about it at the Weekend to Remember. If you’ve got an issue in your marriage you need to put the issue on the table and the two of you together need to say, that’s the issue. You’re not the issue. I’m not the issue. That’s the issue. So, let’s together figure out, we have an issue. Now, let’s talk about how we fix this issue. We may have different perspectives. Rather than making the other person the issue we make the issue the issue and we can now go after that together. Now, we can say we ought to do this. No, I think we ought to do that. Rather than saying, you’re stupid for thinking that. Now, it made you the issue. That’s a different perspective. So let me think about that. Together our goal is fix this issue. We are allies in that rather than being opponents in that.
Rob: That’s right.
Bob: Let’s talk about the tools/the five tools, because you put labels on these/names on these that have been helpful. You’ve come back to this, over and over again, in your own marriage. The first tool for effective communication is what you call the tool of “First Response.” Explain what that is.
Rob: The principle behind this first tool is that the direction of a conversation doesn’t typically belong to the person who starts it, but it belongs to the person who responds to it. In the book, I go through multiple examples of how Jesus really exemplifies this. People were trying to pick fights with Him, constantly, during His earthly ministry; but they never got what they wanted. They never got Him to go in a bad direction. His response steered it toward a redemptive direction, steered it toward a lesson, steered it toward a parable. Because the person that started that conversation was an enemy of Him/they were against Him, that really frustrated them.
It’s really quite the contrary if you’ve got two people trying to build a marriage. I can say something in a harsh way, at a bad time, using the wrong words, to Gina. If she responds—knowing I’m for her, even though I just totally messed it up—if she responds, knowing I’m for her, and her response is gentle or her response is [as] though I said it—not in the tone that I used—we’re not going to be in a conflict. It’s really hard to get in an argument with someone who won’t fight with you.
Bob: So you’re saying the responder determines whether this escalates or de-escalates.
Rob: That’s absolutely right.
Bob: The Bible says a “gentle answer” does what?
Rob: —“turns away wrath.”
Bob: Right; so in a moment when a spouse—in frustration, exasperated about something—says, “This wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t do…”—whatever. What happens next determines whether this escalates or de-escalates.
Rob: That’s absolutely right.
Bob: The power is in the hands of the responder; isn’t it?
Ann: I would say what happens next is very much determined by what your spouse has been feeding their mind and heart with; in other words, when I’m spending time with God—when I’m with Him, when I’m asking God to give me eyes for Dave the way God has eyes for Dave—then my response could be one of gentleness but if I haven’t spent time with Him, and I’ve been spending time with thoughts that are very unbiblical or like, “Dave is the problem, and this is the issue,”—then my response is going to be very much like: “I’m right on it, and I’m jumping on him.”
Gina: You’ve been having that argument in your head for two hours before he even showed up.
Ann: That’s a great point.
Dave: —maybe two weeks. [Laughter]
Ann: —maybe two years!
You even talk about how we should speak so that the other person encounters God. How do we do that?! What’s that look like?
Rob: The principle there is that God has given us words to minister grace. The rest of the principles talk about giving grace to those who hear, talking about not allowing any corrupting talk to come out of our mouths. When we speak to them, our goals in our words should be aligned with God’s goals for them. When I’m responding to Gina, it ought not be self-defensive; God’s not interested in defending me. He’s interested in glorifying Himself in that moment.
My response to Gina ought to be with the compassion and with the goals that God has for her. He wants her to grow in Christ’s likeness. If my words are not aimed at helping her grow in Christ’s likeness, I’m actually out of sync with what God is doing in that moment. It’s having a constant awareness of what God has commanded us to do/how He’s called us to love.
The truth is that we’re actually pretty good at this outside of our house; right? [Laughter] We’re all pretty good at responding. If your boss says something nasty to you, you’re not responding back and escalating that; or you’re not doing that for long, as an employee; right? We’re good at measuring our responses. The problem is, when we walk in our front door, we take that gift off/that skill off. We give ourselves license to sin against one another.
Dave: We do that all the time; it’s: “Why can’t I do that at home? When my wife offends me, I don’t do it.” The question: “How?!”
Rob: The most important—and Ann hit on this earlier—what happens in those moments is an overflow of how you have fed your soul up to that moment. We have to be aware that Christ Himself has been a first responder to us. If He had treated us according to our sins, we wouldn’t have received grace, and compassion, and mercy, and forgiveness. We wouldn’t know fellowship and restoration with God. We wouldn’t know the power of the Holy Spirit living in our lives; we’d be rejected. His response, rightfully, should have destroyed us; but He chose to respond in compassion. We are a recipient of the grace/of the tool of First Response from the throne of God.
If we can live in the goodness of that/in the truth of that, and allow that to function in how we relate to one another in marriage—I’ll never be asked to respond to Gina’s wrath with more grace than God responded to my rebellion—if we live in the goodness of that, if we feed our souls on what God has done for us, the responding is a natural fruit—responding in this way/in the redemptive kind way—is a natural fruit.
Bob: Obviously, when things are going smooth in life, that’s easier to do. It’s when things get busy, hectic, stressful—
Ann: —you have babies that haven’t slept through the night/you’ve had no sleep, your life is stressed.
Rob: You lose something about that.
Bob: In those times when you are stressed out—and because you’re stressed out—it’s a little easier to go toward the flesh than toward the Spirit. Is there a way to walk yourself back in those moments?
Rob: There is. It may not be in the tool of First Response, because we’ve already blown that; right? It may be in some of the other tools/in the more restorative tools. This [First Response] would be more of a proactive tool—where someone acts toward us in a way we wish they wouldn’t—now, we can say: “We don’t have to go there. We can respond in a way.”
But if we’ve already blown through that guard rail, there are other things to keep you from going off the cliff. [Laughter] That’s where some of the other tools come in.
Dave: You’ve got the second tool—the tool of Prayer; right?
Rob: That’s right. The tool of Prayer shows up a lot. It shows up in the tool of First Response, because you may need to pray before you say your next words. It shows up in the tool of Mirroring; because before you respond to what your spouse has said—and you try to repeat back to them, “Am I hearing you correctly?”—you’re going to need prayer: prayerfully listening/prayerfully thinking.
Yes, prayer is one that can show up in every tool.
Ann: Was that always easy for you guys to pray with one another?
Gina: We did so much damage in that first year-and-a-half that it takes time for you to feel safe with your spouse again. Prayer is such a vulnerable thing. When you’re praying with your spouse, you are vulnerable. If you have destroyed that, then praying together is going to be difficult; so maybe in the beginning, you’re not praying together; you’re praying individually.
Then maybe, as healing continues, you’re praying individually and saying: “I prayed for you. I prayed for the conversation we’re going to have.” It comes in baby steps, but God is patient with us. God’s desire is for Him to be glorified in our marriage. It’s not going to happen in a lightning bolt; He will allow it to happen over the course of time.
Rob: In reality, when we first started to be able to put our marriage back together, these were things we worked through together; we were both kind of on the job.
I don’t want that to discourage somebody, who may be listening, where only the wife is trying to really grow in Christ; and the husband may be disinterested or vice versa. Communication in marriage can be quite like a dance, where you would dance better as a couple if you both went for lessons. If only one of you goes for lessons, you may not dance as well as if both of you went for lessons, but you’re going to dance better than if none of you go for lessons.
These tools can help—even if the other spouse is not interested in growing; or in that moment, is not interested in living for Jesus—they can still help the marriage; they can help the spouse that is pressing towards Christ. Lord willing, when the other spouse has received grace, the effect of that will be a softening toward the Lord and conviction on how they haven’t lived for Him in his words or in her words.
Dave: I know, as you talk about this tool of Prayer, I know that I have often—I wish I could say just a few times—but many times, I’ve prayed to win. [Laughter] I’ve taken this tool of Prayer and [spun] it toward me: “God, help me to win this argument,” “God, help her to see my side,”—rather than—“God, help me to hear her, to understand her, to be gentle and responsive.” That’s what you’re talking about; right?
I mean, it would be great if you could pray together; but even if you can’t, I can pray. I can pray the right thing, which is: “God, I want…” Again, we’re back to attitude: “God, I want this to end in reconciliation. God, help me forgive her rather than for her” or “…him to see my way”; right?
Rob: Right. Now you said, “Help me to hear her.” I think that’s very, very important. I think what’s equally important is: “Help me to hear You. You’re doing something now, that if I don’t get on board with that, it doesn’t matter how I use these tools. I’m going to be amiss; I’m going to drift from where You want us to be. What are You wanting from me right now? What are You working on in Gina? What are You wanting in our marriage? So, Lord, help me hear Gina; but help me hear You.”
Ann: I think the greatest lesson I learned, and probably has had the greatest impact on me, is taking my words to God first, and saying, “God, should I say anything?” And then for me to listen and to say: “Father, if I do say anything, what do You want me to say?” and “How should I say it?” That took so much self-control for me, because I wanted to say exactly what was on my mind. It took so much self-control to say: “Holy Spirit, I need You first. I need self-control. I need to hear You, Father.”
Sometimes I would wait, because we hear God in many different ways. It was a matter of waiting, and that’s hard. But I think it’s really important, because I really did use my words as weapons so often; and it hurt Dave/it hurt our relationship. That’s not an easy thing—to go to God first in prayer—but I think it’s really important.
Bob: Yes; I think for everybody listening to ask two questions. First of all to say: “Am I a good responder? Am I walking with Jesus in such a way, day in and day out, that when I get hit with something that kind of throws me for a loop for a minute, can I rebound and respond well?” To work on that as a strategy for your marriage and say: “I want to be the kind of person that, when my spouse says something that is angry, or frustrating, or hurtful, or harmful, I can take a breath and say, ‘Let’s talk about that,’ rather than erupting in anger.”
Dave: I think it’s unnatural. The natural thing is, when somebody escalates, you escalate. It’s got to be supernatural for you to respond the way Jesus would respond.
Bob: Then, the second thing is: “Have I been praying for our marriage? Have I been praying for my spouse?” and “What have those prayers sounded like? Are those prayers of anger, and frustration, and ‘God you need to fix them?’; or is it: ‘Lord, what do I need to do? I have a humble heart; I’m teachable. How can I be a different person? Lord, make me more like You in this situation with my spouse.’”
These are two of the tools that Rob outlines in the book, With These Words, that we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. In fact, I’m sitting here thinking about a couple I know. We’ve been talking about challenges and frustrations in their marriage. I’m thinking: “A lot of it is communication. It is just they’re not expressing themselves well to one another”; so I’m going to get them a copy of this book.
You can order a copy for yourself, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number—that’s 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” The book, again, is called With These Words: Five Communication Tools for Marriage and Life by Rob Flood.
Let me ask you whether it has been hard or easy for you in recent days to find yourself rejoicing? I think as you pay attention to what is going on in our world, as you stay connected to social media, or you’re watching what’s going on in the news it’s hard to maintain a spirit of joy. I want to point you to what the Scriptures tell us in
1 Thessalonians 5:16 says, rejoice always. Let me remind you, the person who wrote that was somebody who spent time in prison, who was locked up in chains, who often did not have enough to eat, and who had been beaten for his faith. He’s the one telling us to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
So, rejoice, pray, and give thanks. These are our marching orders as sons and daughters of God during these difficult times. I’ll tell what. As we do that, as we rejoice, as we give thanks, and as we pray the people around us are going to wonder why we are hopeful and joyful and at peace. That gives us an opportunity to give a reason for the hope that is in us. So, keep your spiritual vision intact during these difficult times. Stay on mission. Stay focused on God. Let the peace of God that passes understanding put your heart at ease.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk more about communication in marriage. We want to find out if it’s okay—if you’re locked up in communication, and you’re not doing well—is it okay to call a timeout?—and to separate for 15 minutes, or half an hour, or even a half day? Is it okay to take a break? Rob and Gina Flood will be back with us tomorrow to talk about that. I hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, with some help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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