Communication That Arises From a Caring Heart
by David Gibson
When the routines of daily life become highly stressful, “we all long for ways to communicate,” Susan Muto writes in her just-released book, “One in the Lord” (New City Press of the Focolare). The widely known writer on spirituality is the author or co-author of more than 40 books.
She suggests that tight schedules and the pressure to make ends meet can assess a toll on marriage by limiting “the length and quality of time that couples can spend together.” To illustrate this point, she tells a story about a wife and husband who “work different shifts” and “hardly have time to be together.”
Whenever “duty calls,” either the wife or the husband “is left alone to care for the children.” They think: “Nothing has gone the way we expected. Now, when we most need to converse, there seems to be a wall of silence between us.”
In these circumstances, Muto thinks it is better to exchange “a few brief yet understanding words” than to await “the perfect time to communicate that never comes.” She writes, “Sharing from the heart can occur at a moment’s notice.”
Instead of passing each other like ships in the night, her hope is that the spouses will “listen to one another in unhurried attention.”
She goes on to caution against the presumption “that more communication is better communication.” People need to distinguish “mere verbiage” from “words that rise from the center of a caring heart,” she says.
The Art of Listening
Muto’s new book is not devoted to marriage as such, though at a number of points she highlights the sorts of community formed in family life and marriage. While marriages “begin through romantic love,” Muto insists they are “sustained by countless acts of caring.”
She speaks of Christianity as “a religion of relationships.” Jesus, she says, “calls us daily to celebrate Christian community at home and in the working places of family life, church and society.”
The book’s 32 brief chapters explore many challenges met in the call of Christians to community. The chapters seem designed to prompt readers to ponder issues in their lives and relationships that relate directly to faith.
I wanted to mention this book particularly for its discussions of communication and the “art” of listening. Marriage counselors, researchers and those working with engaged couples typically hold that marriages improve when communication between spouses improves.
In this, the importance of skilled listening frequently is accented. Muto accents listening too, but not so much as a skill. Her attention focuses more on underlying convictions, attitudes and habits – like kindness – that prompt caring communication.
“In most cases, difficulty in communicating stems not from limited skills but from failure to maintain a kind and courteous frame of mind,” Muto says.
While she holds that “effective communication techniques” are not the guarantee of “effective conversation,” in no way does she diminish the importance of listening. Consider, for example, her statement that “neither family nor community life can survive, let alone thrive, unless we learn how to listen.”
“Other-centered love” is a theme in Muto’s book – loving others for who they are, not for what they can do for us.
For Muto, listening demands “the discipline of other-centered love.” It places concern for others above self-satisfaction. But when our conversations lack this discipline, “we can hardly wait for the other person to stop talking so we can have the last word.”
Other-centered love emerges, she comments, when we respect our own dignity and the dignity of others. Very beneficially, “it generates an ebb and flow of giving and receiving love that thaws self-centered indifference.”
People incur risks when they do not rise to the challenge of listening quietly to each other and taking each other’s words seriously, Muto makes clear.
There is the risk, for example, that the distance between them will expand when, instead of listening, they simply blurt out their already-held views, refusing to accord any real value to what the other says.
Muto points out the damage done when a person approaches conversations wanting to score points and somehow win, as if a conversation was a contest. However, “giving up the need to have the last word relieves the stress that blocks our serenity,” she states plainly.
Another risk for people who do not listen to each other is that their “conversation may descend to superficial chats about the weather or sports, never approaching the deepest purpose of [their] togetherness.”
Tension ratchets up when people speak “at” each other but do not listen, Muto explains. Happily, when people truly communicate, a space opens up for respect and trust in a relationship.
What favors good communication is “a loving atmosphere” that involves listening respectfully, according to Muto. The virtue of such communication is that it “will draw us together.”
- Susan Muto, One in the Lord: Living Our Call to Christian Community (link to Amazon)
- “For Couples, Communication is Multidimensional” (Marriage in the News, April 2011)
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.