09 Jul Promote Good Communication with the Speaker-Listener Technique
Every relationship experiences difficulties in communication from time to time. This can be especially true when discussing sensitive or hot button items, which can often make emotions rise, defences come up, and disconnection ensue.
“Fighting For Your Marriage” by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg is a brilliant book for couples (or any kind of relationships, parent-child, colleague-colleague, etc.) seeking techniques to effectively communicate, de-escalate big emotions, and promote connection instead of distance. One such practice is called the Speaker-Listener technique. This technique helps to foster a sense of feeling felt – being understood by your partner, feeling validated and attuned to. Click here for a bit more information on the power of empathy and attunement and why this helps communication.
In order for the Speaker-Listener technique to be successful, follow these few guidelines:
- Work together – in times of conflict it’s very natural to approach the situation with a “me vs. you” mentality, but you know where that gets you. If you can replace this thinking with “us versus the issue” – now you’re on the same team.
- Promote psychological safety – you don’t have to agree with your partner on the facts of the situation, but you do need to listen and try to understand. For example, you might disagree when your partner says they are always taking out the trash – you’re allowed to have a different perspective, that’s perfectly fine – but you must attempt to hear and attune to their concerns about how overwhelmed they feel with all the chores. If you engage in discounting or rebutting the facts, neither of you will feel heard, you’ll close down, and a sense of psychological safety within the conversation is lost.
- Follow the rules –
Rules for both:
- The speaker has the floor
- Share the floor
- No problem solving – we’re primarily seeking first to understand and attune
- Stay on topic – try not to lump a whole host of issues into the conversation
Rules for the Speaker:
- Speak for yourself – focus on feelings and needs, avoid mind-reading or using perceptions-as-feelings
- Keep it bite sized – talk in small chunks
- Stop and let the Listener paraphrase
Rules for the Listener:
- Paraphrase what you hear – focus on the Speaker’s thoughts and feelings
- Don’t rebut. Focus on the Speaker’s message
- Seek clarification – ask, “Did I get that right?” or “Is there anything I missed?”
The Speaker-Listener technique helps to deconstruct arguments by giving each person a defined role and a set of rules to follow. Often we rarely engage in active listening and instead focus on our rebuttal, leaving the other person feeling totally unheard. Likewise, we can often use unhelpful mind-reading or mud-slinging tactics to try to communicate. It’s a lot easier for your partner to hear and try to understand you when you say “I’m so tired” than it is for them when you say “You never take out the trash.” The Speaker-Listener technique thus promotes effective communication of one’s experience, and active listening skills of the other.
This is not to say that once you master this technique, you’ll no longer have conflict, nor that this technique is the be-all-end-all of good communication. Instead, it’s a tool to support couples foster a sense of what Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg call “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” thereby reducing the potential for fights to escalate and increasings couples’ abilities to seek understanding of each other.
On a final note – this practice can often feel artificial and clunky. That’s because it is, and part of the reason that it works. We’re not expressly taught how to communicate about sensitive or difficult topics, and for many, sensitive topics and big emotions were not managed very well growing up – they might have either been indulged in, suppressed, or totally ignored. The truth is, what comes naturally to a lot of couples is often destructive style of communicating about sensitive topics. The Speaker-Listener technique offers a way out.