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Communication and Active Listening

Communication and Active Listening

Communication problems: By far, the number one reason couple’s come to therapy. When you think of it, it’s the number one problem in most relationship issues—family, friends, and work to name a few. Communication issues are far-reaching and impact each and every one of our relationships, particularly intimate and committed ones.

The topics of the difficulty vary. Perhaps you have difficulty in talking—and listening—about finances, parenting or sex. For some, just recounting what happened in your day or trying to bring up previous conflict that feels unresolved proves impossible and turns toxic. Trying to get on the proverbial “same page” often proves maddening.

So, what are some exercises or practices couples can learn to help with their communication? Here are a few that often find their way into a therapy session.

Active Listening

“My wife says I have two faults. I don’t listen and something else.”

Listening may be more important than actually talking if you scrap the word, “maybe.” Often when couples get heated discussing matters, listening comes to a halt and things break down soon after. A basic skill is to practice active listening where you practice listening without interrupting and then repeating back to your partner exactly what you heard. Many couples' therapy exercises are based around practicing skills that will make you and your partner better listeners. Active listening is designed to not only make it easier to converse about sensitive issues but also to actually deepen your understanding and appreciation of your partner.

It is important to use “I” statements. A common communication pitfall is when words like “you”, “should”, and “could” are used during self-expression.  These words result in a defensive reaction, while the individual feels attacked, blamed, and criticized. This assertiveness training activity teaches couples how to eliminate these words by educating them how to express themselves in an “I statement” format.

For this activity, set aside time to talk with your partner and either select a topic to talk about or even keep it more short and specific—explain what you really need from the other person in that particular moment. Take turns where one of you is the speaker and the other the listener. The listener may take notes. The listener is not to interrupt but to instead stay engaged and listen. It may be wise to set a time limit—start out with one minute, then two minutes, and work your way up to five minutes. After the speaker is done, the listener is to mirror—or repeat—back what they heard and then validate with the speaker if they got it correct. Switch roles and repeat.

Again, rather than communicate as you normally would, create more structure in the dialog by using mirroring, validation and empathy. Mirroring is repeating what your spouse said in your own words in a way that expresses curiosity/interest. Validating in a conversation is conveying understanding. A simple, “I get what you’re saying,” is all that is needed. Lastly, empathy is expressing interest in how your partner feels by saying something along the lines of, “How does that make you feel?”

Conflict management

Often when we are in conflict mode, we are living in response to our history. Old stories or tapes are running and we get triggered. A very effective Gottman Method technique helps to manage conflict and how to deal with the aftermath of a fight. One practice is to process a past regrettable incident that allows each partner to be fully heard and hopefully understood.

  1. Discuss your feelings about the incident. Share how you felt and avoid commenting on your partner’s feelings
  2. Describe your realities of the incident. Recall how you saw it. Take turns and then summarize and validate a part of your partner’s reality
  3. Discuss your triggers. Share what experience or memories you’ve had that might have escalated the interaction and the stories of why these are triggers for each of you
  4. Take responsibility in your role in the incident by acknowledging how you have contributed to the fight or regrettable incident.
  5. Make constructive plans. Plan together one way that each of you can make it better next time.
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