A great listening exercise
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
One of the things nearly every couple who comes to marriage and couples counseling struggles with is communication. Most couples need to learn new skills or tools to improve the way they communicate.
This is my version of the Couples Dialogue created by Harville Hendrix in the 1980s. If you stay within this structure, you will not have a fight and you will not misunderstand each other, so stay in the structure at all costs. Do not let this turn into a normal conversation. Even if you want to say something nice, don’t say anything unless it’s in the structure.
First person sends a message in the form of an “I” statement: “I feel angry when it seems like you don’t want to talk to me.” It’s crucial that the word that follows “I feel” is a feeling… like happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc. Do not say something like “I feel like you are a jerk.” Also, make sure that the second part of your statement is stated subjectively by using something like “when it seems” or “when it appears”. Look at how different the following two statement are: “I feel angry when it seems like you don’t want to talk to me” and “I feel angry when you don’t want to talk to me.” With the second statement, it would be very easy for the listener to go on the defensive or argue that they did want to talk. If stated subjectively in terms of your own experience, there is nothing to argue. You can’t argue with the fact that someone felt angry, but you can argue the fact that you did or didn’t want to talk. The sender of the message should try to keep their message brief – one short sentence. This can be a challenge, but it also forces you to think about what you’re saying, to put some effort into honing it down to a clear, digestible message.
The listener’s job is to listen, to turn off the internal voice that, while listening, is also thinking about their comeback, their counterargument, or their evidence to the contrary. Turn this voice off and focus on hearing the speaker. After you’ve heard them, repeat back what you heard. This can be verbatim or in your own words, but do not add anything extra to the message that wasn’t actually said. With the above example, the listener would say something like “I hear that you feel angry when it seems like I don’t want to talk to you.” Then ask the sender if you got it right: “Did I get it right?” If they say yes then move on to the next step, which is validating. This is when you let the sender know that what they said makes sense. This doesn’t mean that you would feel exactly the same way they feel, but that you can understand how they would feel that way. This can be something like “that makes sense” or “I can understand why you feel that way” or “I can understand why you would feel angry when it seems like I don’t want to talk.” At this point, we are done with this message. The message was sent, it was heard and repeated back, accurate hearing was confirmed by the sender, and the message was validated.
Now we switch roles, and the listener now sends a message. They may do this in the form of some sort of response to the first message, but it’s okay if we move on to a whole new topic. This format doesn’t allow for things like compromise and problem solving; all it allows for is the expression of feelings and for that expression to be accurately heard. You can’t really have a “normal” conversation using this.
Schedule three times each week to do this for 10 minutes. Treat these scheduled meetings like you’d treat a counseling appointment – if you don’t show up, it costs you money. Set a timer. One person starts as the sender. Once the message has been received, repeated and validated, switch to the other person being the sender. It’s helpful if some of the messages (maybe 20%) are positive – like “I feel happy when it seems like you want to spend time with me.” But make sure most of the messages are more constructive. It’s okay if you have difficulty coming up with something to say. Take some time to think. Anything is fair game as long as you have feelings about it or in the past had feelings about it. No relationship problems are off limits. When the 10 minutes are up, it’s okay to have an unstructured conversation about what you talked about, but only if both people want to do this. If one of you doesn’t want to talk about it, then don’t.
So it might look something like this:
“I feel sad when it seems like you don’t want to spend time with me.”
“I hear that you feel sad when it seems like I don’t want to spend time with you. Did I get it right?”
“I can see how that would make you feel sad.”
“I feel frustrated when it seems like you get angry when I tell you how I feel.”
“What you’re saying is you feel frustrated when it seems like I get mad when you tell me your feelings. Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“That makes sense.”
For more information, visit my Marriage and Couples Counseling page.