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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Perfecting the Art of Perception-Checking

  • Dr. David Hawkins Director, Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2009 15 Dec
Perfecting the Art of Perception-Checking

Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to  

"I know you believe what you think I said, but I'm not sure that what you heard is what I really meant to say."

I'm not sure who originally penned those words, but they speak volumes to most of us. At one time or another, each of us has been in a heated argument with our mate and found ourselves screaming to be heard and understood. Or, right in the middle of a heated discussion, you lose track of what you were trying to say in the first place.

How quickly a phrase can get turned around? How fast we can feel provoked and turn on our mate and provoke them in return. At one time or another, in our intimate relationships, our thoughts get turned around, jumbled, or we put a spin on what our mate is saying. Such "spinning" creates chaos and efforts must be made to manage them.

A powerful tool I like for bringing clarity to a confusing situation is perception-checking. Perception-checking is exactly what it sounds like: We check out our perceptions by repeating what our mate says to make sure we heard them accurately. When we have not heard them accurately, we alter our perceptions and practice listening until we have accurately heard what they have said.

Here are a few examples of perception-checking: 

• "Are you saying…………….."
• "Did I hear you say…………?"
• "I'm not sure if I got that right. It sounded like you were saying………"
• "Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought you said……………."

Do you see how each of these statements, or questions, brings clarity to the conversation? In each case there is the possibility of understanding each other, leading to intimacy.

 Consider this testimonial from a client recently: 

Dear Dr. David. My husband and I have had trouble getting into heated arguments. When things get heated, he twists my words and I'm sure I twist his. He takes my words out of context and then throws them back at me. Of course I don't like it and usually say something sarcastic or hurtful back at him. Soon things are a jumbled mess. 

Recently, however he and I began couples counseling. The counselor taught us a new skill—perception-checking. He has us practice listening carefully to what each other is saying, and slowing down the process until we get things right. It is amazing how much this one tool has helped us. Please encourage your readers to incorporate this tool into their marriage.

Bravo to this couple, and the many others who are attending couples counseling to try to strengthen their relationship. Marriage takes work—work to enhance skills. This one particular tool is a powerful and will strengthen any relationship. Let's consider why this tool is so effective. 

First, we all long to be understood, and perception-checking is a powerful tool for understanding. What we have to say is important, and having our words twisted and distorted is particularly frustrating. On the other hand, being understood draws us closer to our mate. Having our words validated puts us on the same "wavelength" as our mate, increasing intimacy.

Second, perception-checking shows that we are tuned in to our mate. Asking our mate if we have understood them shows them that we are taking an active interest in them. We are actively listening, striving to "get" what they are saying. This is one of the highest compliments we can give them—we care enough to ask questions about how they view their world.

Third, perception-checking is a way to take the conversation to a deeper and more intimate level. There are times in every conversation when we need to be more attuned to our mate. At times they won't even know what they are trying to say, and perception-checking will help "slice it thinner,"---taking the conversation to a deeper level.

Fourth, perception-checking slows things down, helping to keep things calm. Nothing destroys healthy communication as much as anger and heated emotions. A strong dose of anger and frustration propels a perfectly good conversation into a battle of wills. Perception-checking helps calm things down so real listening and communication can occur.

Finally, perception-checking leads to other, healthy communication practices. Once you have mastered perception-checking, you can move more easily into sharing feelings, owning your own thoughts and perceptions, validating another's experience and active listening skills.
So, I think I hear you telling me you want more tools to improve your marriage? Am I right about this, or is there something else I can write about that would be more effective? (Just practicing!) Please give me feedback on this issue.

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.


November 30, 2009