Active Listening or "Mirroring"
Communicating in a Healthy, Constructive Manner
Research has shown that there is a structured communication format that can be very helpful for couples to communicate in a healthier and constructive way then they often do. The format is called by a variety of names, such as Active Listening or Mirroring. The basic elements of this communication format are shown below.
They are typically four major blocks to healthy communication which couples experience in their interactions:
- Arguing or Withdrawing
- Blaming and Accusing
- Not Listening
- Changing the Subject
By using these blocks to good communication, a couple virtually ensures that they will not be able to resolve conflicts. Over time, these styles of communication will create resentment, distance and an unhappy relationship.
Fortunately, there are skills which can be learned by most couples to substitute for each of these communication blocks. In this format, only one person speaks at a time, and the other person's job is purely to listen. Only when the first person is completely done talking does the other one begin expressing what they have to say.
Instead of arguing or withdrawing, couples can learn to:
1. Set the Stage for Healthy Communication
For good communication to occur, it must be the right time and place. If either of you is too upset or distracted, the interaction will most likely end up with one of the above for communication blocks predominating the discussion. So if you know you or your partner is too upset to have a constructive conversation, do the following:
- Stop and cool down; leave the situation if necessary for a while
- Set a specific time and place to talk again
- Don't interrupt your partner; let them express
- Acknowledge your partner's concerns
Instead of Blaming and Accusing, couples can learn to:
2. Use "I" Messages
When couples do a lot of blaming and accusing, they start many sentences to each other with words such as "you always…" or "you never…". Their partner is immediately put on the defensive when they hear a sentence beginning with the word "you".
A better method is to take responsibility for what you are feeling and communicate that to your partner. Begin sentences with phrases like "I feel… or "I think…". For example instead of blaming and accusing you say, "You don’t care about me", "You’re selfish". Using "I" messages the same statement might come out like this: "When you stay out late past when you told me you’d be home, I feel hurt, frustrated and angry. When you finally really do come home I don’t want to be close to you. In fact it usually takes me until the next day before I feel like being close with you again".
- Discuss your feelings in a responsible way
- If you discuss your partner's behaviour, again do so in terms of your feelings
- Let your partner know your feelings when they engage in the behaviour
- Tell your partner the consequences of their behaviour to you
Instead of not listening, couples can learn to:
3. Use Active Listening
With active listening, the listener's job is purely to listen, without interruption, without adding to what the speaker has said. The key elements of Active Listening are to:
- Listen to understand: even if you don't agree with what your partner is saying, pay attention and listen to it.
- Summarise: after you've heard them, paraphrase and repeat back what you're heard. "So what I heard you say was…"
- Verify: when you are done summarising what you heard your partner say, ask them "Did I hear you correctly?" Let them give you feedback. Maybe you missed an important element of what they said. This is not a test and not about being right or wrong; it's about listening and your partner being heard.
- Be open and receptive for more input: when your partner has agreed that you have heard them on that one comment, ask them, "Is anything else you want to say?". Let them know that they have the floor until they are finished getting everything out that they need to.
Instead of changing the subject, couples can learn to:
4. Stay on One Subject at a time
By agreeing ahead of time to talk only about one topic and nothing else, couples can make significant progress on an issue. It may take several sessions to hear what each other has to say about a topic, just as it took some time for the feelings about it to develop. Be patient and keep talking.
By using this structured communication format, couples are forced to listen without interruption and to take responsibility for what they are experiencing. While getting skilful at this format takes some practice, it is more than worth the effort when couples see that they have the power to transform repetitive hostile arguments into healing, solution-focussed discussions.
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