As a therapist, I do a lot of couples therapy. That means I deal frequently with warring, dysfunctional relationships in most cases. Most people enter couples therapy as a last resort to save their marriage or relationship. Some expect me to tell them what to do. Others are surprised when I tell them it is not my job to save their marriage, but theirs. I always remember one couple I had who only spoke with each other in the sessions we had arranged twice a week. The first two sessions were purely about them talking over each other, shouting and insulting. Midway through the second session, they asked me what they should do. I took a risk and said they should get a divorce because it is clear that they do not listen to or understand each other. They suddenly became united against me and I said… Ok. let’s start work.
The one factor in the example above runs through many situations I have experienced in my professional and personal life. People do not listen to understand, they listen to reply, that is, they are waiting for a gap to get their view across. They generally do not have the ability to give the other psychological air, put themselves in another’s shoes and understand another person’s frame of reference.
As an avid fan of Stephen Covey’s work, I often teach couples how to listen effectively based on his best selling book, the 7 habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 5, seek first to understand, before being understood is the basis for listening effectively, or as he says.. do not prescribe before diagnosing! It is the one single factor, more than any other, that once mastered can better a relationship.
It is a technique that can help manage and avoid disruptive and assaulting behaviours. The foundation of the technique can be summarised in 5 simple steps. Once this is done, the credibility of your argument increases to the point that effective communication takes place:
– Provide the speaker with your undivided attention. This is one time “multi-tasking” or “rapid refocus” will get you in trouble.
– Be non-judgemental. Do not minimise or trivialise the speaker’s issue. Avoid auto-biographical responses based on YOUR experience.
– Read the speaker. Observe the emotions behind the words. Is the speaker angry, afraid, frustrated or resentful. Respond to the emotion as well as the words.
– Be Quiet. Do not feel you must have an immediate reply. Often if you allow for some quiet after the speaker has vented, they themselves will break the silence and offer a solution.
– Assure your understanding. Ask clarifying questions and restate what you perceive the speaker to be saying. Avoid probing and challenging questioning that come from your experience and assumption. Question for understanding.
One extremely simple method I have often used, is the Indian Talking Stick method. The process of allowing one person to talk and the other listens, paraphrases or summarises brings good results. Practiced frequently, it can lead to extremely changed communication patterns.
I often hear people say ”I am a good listener” but I often wonder how true this is. My experience is that this a rare quality that few truly possess. However, once mastered it can turn something good to something great, can make quantum changes in perceptions of other people.
Equally, when you come across someone who can listen effectively, there is no better feeling in the world than to be truly understood by another human being. Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you are dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You are listening to understand. You are focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.
However good communication between a couple is, conflict will always raise its head. Many couples fear conflict and do their very best to avoid it happening. However, it is not about keeping conflict out but how a couple deals with it when it inevitably occurs.