Solutions for Couple’s Communication Problems: Active Listening

couple fighting and not communicating

During some fifteen years as a Marriage & Family Counselor and an ABS Board Certified Sex Therapist in Thornton Colorado, there are some issues that seem to regularly show up in my work with couples, perhaps the most common being communication problems, often significant enough to threaten the continuation of the relationship.

Generally, the individuals in such cases have no clear understanding of what communication actually is – and why would they? Interpersonal communication is not something that is taught in school, or practiced by most families, and the vast majority of us probably thinks that communication is just a synonym for conversation, meaning an informal interchange of thoughts, just talking back and forth, with their primary concern being to express themselves. However, the heart of the word communication is from the Latin root communis, meaning to connect. Communicating is more of a joining than just an exchange of ideas.

Problems Communicating – Are You Listening?

The reasons why people don’t — or won’t — listen to each other are numerous and varied, including anger, arrogance, pride, defensiveness, an unwillingness to admit to mistakes, and much more. Sometimes one person may feel that the other person doesn’t deserve to be heard, or the listener may be too distracted at that moment.

Too often I’ve seen a lack of listening result from an imbalance in the relationship, wherein one person feels superior and will consistently diminish or disregard what the other one has to say. In some cultural norms, the views and opinions of women are routinely devalued or discounted by men. Similarly, there may be a power differential, where one partner sees the other as less capable of expressing themselves. Many people think they are far better listeners than they actually are, so why would they ever think they need to improve their listening skills?

Ways Be Sure That You Are Actually Communicating

For those couples who have been regularly disagreeing, arguing and oppositional with each other over time, learning and practicing Active Listening usually improves a real sense of connection between them. I’ve also seen that Active Listening doesn’t always help to heal the relationship, especially if underlying issues have more to do with domination and control, or the two individuals are just basically incompatible with each other, in which case Active Listening may help them to at least understand that they may want different things out of life, which may lead to healthier outcomes for the individuals if they each went their separate ways.

Clients who are committed to repairing and healing their relationship will benefit greatly from learning Active Listening, which is a conscientious method of hearing and responding, a simple protocol that has been known to save relationships before it’s too late. The basics of this technique are simple, but the results are often profound. Most people probably have no previous experience with anything similar to this focused style of communicating, so we’ll use the imaginary couple, Sue and Bob, to help keep it simple.

Sue is bothered by something and would rather not keep it to herself, where it may fester and build up resentment, so she begins with: “I have something I’d like to discuss with you. Is now a good time?” which leads to the first ‘decision tree’ of the process – a choice point that’s usually some version of yes or no on Bob’s part. He replies “Sure – what’s up?”

Sue proceeds “When you were talking with that blonde woman at the party the other night, I felt ignored. You guys wouldn’t even let me get a word in edgewise. And I hated the way she kept touching your shoulder and her stupid giggle every time you said something.” Bob’s first response might be a simple “Is that it?” For our purposes, Sue nods her head yes.

Considering the type of exchanges I’ve often seen during couples’ counseling, here are some replies that Bob could have had: “Are you nuts? – I don’t know what you’re talking about—That’s not how it happened — You’re just being jealous again…” and on and on.

Communication: Reactions v Responses

In Active Listening terms, these are not responses, these are reactions, each one an invitation to argue and disagree. If Bob were practicing Active Listening, his first reply would be something like: “So, you’re upset about my conversation with that blond girl at the party.” That’s not a question, it’s a statement meant to let Sue know that she’s been heard. At this point, practiced listeners might inquire “Is there more?” For our purposes, that’s all Sue had, and she says so. If she did have more to say, it’s still her turn, until she has nothing more, and then her turn is over, which she will clearly indicate. Before Bob responds, this must be clear.

Does Bob now get to tell Sue that he thinks she’s mistaken? Here is another decision tree, another choice point. Bob could simply say “OK. I heard you.” and leave it there – for now, or forever. He could also choose to open the conversation further with “Do you want to hear what I have to say about that?” By the rules of the Active Listening protocol, that would be Sue’s decision. She might say, “Not now, maybe later,” or “I just wanted you to know. I don’t really want to discuss it further right now,” or any number of other things that may or may not open up into further conversation. Does that mean Bob just has to sit on it? Possibly – that depends on how red he is. In Active Listening, the term red is used as a kind of symbolic thermometer measuring the level of reactivity, or negative emotions, each of the parties may be experiencing. Generally, whoever has the most red gets to take a turn, unless the other party can’t or won’t listen. This juncture may reflect where each one’s ethics, motivations, and purpose in being in the partnership may show up. If you brought up something that significantly elevated the other’s red level, do they get to express that to you? If you can’t (not won’t) listen right then, are you willing to make a plan for when that could happen? And if you won’t, what does that say about the relationship.

If Bob does have a response to Sue’s upset about the party, and she says that it’s OK to proceed, then it becomes his turn, and the same protocol is observed, with Bob now being the speaker and Sue being the listener. Even if she doesn’t like what he says, her first Active Listening reply should start with a statement such as “Here’s what I heard you say…” and the protocol continues from there.

An Active Listening conversation is complete when each of the parties can agree that they understood each other’s points. There is no requirement to agree. The object is to be clear about what each other is thinking and feeling about the subject matter of the conversation.

Time and again in the therapy room, what I’ve seen between couples often resembles a competition, where each one wants to prove themselves right and their partner wrong, sometimes bringing up old wounds from the past, or significant disappointments and fiascos, to substantiate how flawed the partner is. That’s about as far from Active Listening as it gets – and unfortunately, it’s far too common, not only among couples, but between friends, family, co-workers, and just about everybody else.

Will Active Listening fix all the problems that the couple is going through? No. But it will help in their communication, which will then help them to understand themselves and each other better – and I see that as a necessity from where I sit in the therapist’s chair.


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