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Section 6
Communication Strategy, the Speaker-Listener Technique

CEU Question 6 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Couples
Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

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In the last section, we discussed filters, as they relate to teaching communication strategies. We also discussed how filters impair communication in relationships. The five filters we discussed are distractions, emotional states, beliefs and expectations, differences in style, and self-protection.

In this section, we will discuss a Speaker-Listener technique for structuring discussions between couples on sensitive issues. I have found the Speaker-Listener technique to be a helpful communication strategy to teach to couples undergoing conflict.

As you know, structured communication techniques can provide a "safety net" for couples during discussions on sensitive topics. Clearly, one major benefit to teaching couples these techniques is that both partners gain confidence, knowing that they can use their new skills to handle any difficult discussions that come their way. The Speaker-Listener technique is one skill set that can be used in this manner, and in my practice I teach it frequently. I have found the Speaker-Listener technique a helpful tool for couples attempting to change the patterns in their relationship.

My clients Aaron, 35, and Jane, 33, had been married for over ten years, and had three children ages 3, 7, and 9. Aaron and Jane had become locked into the pursuit-withdrawal cycle regarding deciding whether or not to enroll their youngest daughter, Felicity, in preschool for the coming term. Jane stated, "I just can’t get him to stop stalling and talk about this issue with me! We need to make a decision soon! It’s gotten so that we’re both so frustrated all the time that we’re fighting over stupid things, like whose turn it is to do the dishes." 

Aaron added, "I know we need to talk about it, but it just gets so complicated so fast, and we’re both storming off before I know what’s happened."  Since Aaron and Jane were clearly having problems with beginning the discussion and with escalation, I recommended practicing the Speaker-Listener technique to prepare for the discussion about Felicity’s preschool.

Speaker-Listener Technique
I stated, "Before we begin practicing this technique, we need to set some ground rules for both of you. First, remember that the speaker has the floor. This means that whoever is speaking gets to speak uninterrupted. Sometimes couples find using a concrete object to represent "having the floor" is really helpful." I gave Aaron and Jane a square of linoleum to use as a representative object. I stated, "That way, when you have the floor, you really have the floor!

The second rule for both of you is that you need to share the floor. Although the speaker has the floor first, you need to pass it back and forth during the conversation." Clearly, this is a trust issue. Each partner needs to trust that their spouse will give them the floor when they need it, so that they can in turn yield the floor when their partner needs to speak. Do you agree that having a solid object to pass back and forth can be extremely helpful in making sure couples share the floor?

I explained to Aaron and Jane, "The final rule for both of you is no problem solving. When you use this technique, try to focus on having a good discussion in which you both feel heard. Sometimes, when couples focus on trying to solve the problem, they listen less to what their partner has to say." Aaron stated, "Yeah, that sounds like us. I get so focused on trying to decide whether Felicity should even be in preschool, where we should send her, whether she’s ready, that I hardly listen to what I’m saying, let alone what Jane’s saying!"

3 Speaker Role Rules
Now that I had discussed the ground rules for both speakers to Aaron and Jane, I outline the rules for the partner in the speaker role.

--1. The first of these rules, as you are aware, is to not mindread. I told Jane, "When you’re speaking, try to talk just about what you feel and think, don’t try to interpret or guess at what Aaron wants and thinks. Try to use I statements as much as you can."

--2. The second rule for the speaker is don’t go on and on. As we mentioned earlier, an important part of this technique is trusting that each partner will have a chance to say all they need to say. I encourage couples to practice breaking what they need to say in to manageable pieces.

--3. The final ground rule for the speaker is to stop and let the listener paraphrase. I stated, "Jane, when you say something really important to you, stop and let Aaron rephrase what you just said. If what he says isn’t quite right, gently restate what you mean to say. This isn’t a test for Aaron, but it gives you both a chance to make sure Aaron understands what you are saying."

2 Listener Role Rules
I told Aaron, "For the listener, there are two important ground rules.

--1. The first relates to what I just explained to Jane. You should make sure to paraphrase what she says to you. This lets Jane know you’re really listening, and gives you a chance to make sure you understand how she is feeling.

--2. The second rule is not to rebut. The hardest part of being in the listener role is not offering your opinion. When you’re in the listener role, you should try to focus just on understanding what Jane has to say, and paying attention."  Aaron replied, "So I hold on to all of my stuff until we switch roles, and then Jane takes a turn to just listen to me? That makes sense. So when I’m the listener, I paraphrase what Jane says, and don’t argue with what she has to say." Jane added, "And when I’m the speaker, I make sure not to mindread, to keep what I have to say in manageable bits, and make sure I give Aaron a chance to paraphrase what I’m saying. And we both make sure to respect who has the floor, to share the floor, and not problem solve."

Since both Aaron and Jane displayed understanding of the Speaker-Listener technique and seemed receptive, we practiced discussing Felicity’s preschool in our session. To begin, Aaron took the square of linoleum and took the speaker role. Aaron stated, "I’m not sure Felicity is ready for preschool this year. She acts pretty young, and I’m not sure how she’d do." Jane then paraphrased this statement, saying, "You’re worried Felicity would get overwhelmed by older-acting kids?"

Aaron responded, "Well, partly, but I’m also not sure she’s ready to be away from us that much. I had a hard time adjusting to preschool when I was little, and that’s partly why it worries me so much."  As you can see, Aaron and Jane demonstrate a good grasp of the Speaker-Listener technique. When Jane did not pick up on Aaron’s real worries, he gently but clearly re-explained his fears about starting Felicity in preschool. 

In this section, we have discussed the Speaker-Listener technique for structuring conversations for couples on sensitive issues. Would playing this section be beneficial to a couple you are currently treating?

In the next section, we will discuss five hidden issues that can drive frustrating or destructive arguments between spouses.  The five issues we will focus on in this section are issues of control and power, issues of caring, issues of recognition, issues of commitment, and issues of integrity. We will also discuss ways to recognize hidden issues.

- Halford, T. C., Owen, J., Duncan, B. L., Anker, M. G., & Sparks, J. A. (Feb 2016) Pre-Therapy Relationship Adjustment, Gender and the Alliance in Couple Therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 38(1), 18-35.

- Scheinkman, M., CSW., & Fishbane, M. D., PhD. (Dec 2004) The Vulnerability Cycle: Working with Impasses in Couple Therapy. Family Process, 43(4), 279.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Carlson, R. G., Guttierrez, D., Daire, A. P., & Hall, K. (2014). Does the frequency of speaker-listener technique use influence relationship satisfaction? Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 24(1), 25–29.

Feuerman, M. L. (2018). Therapeutic presence in emotionally focused couples therapy. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy21(3), 22-32.

Kuster, M. (Oct 2017). Approach-avoidance goals and relationship problems, communication of stress, and dyadic coping in couples. Motivation & Emotion41(5), 576-590.

Li, P. & Johnson, L. N. (2018). Couples' depression and relationship satisfaction: Examining the moderating effects of demand/withdraw communication patterns. Journal of Family Therapy, Supplement40, 63-85.

Miller, K., & Kelly, A. (2020). Is self-compassion contagious? An examination of whether hearing a display of self-compassion impacts self-compassion in the listener. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 52(2), 159–170.

Patricia, P., Boyle, R. A., & Tejada, L.. (Sep 2008). I said, you said: A communication exercise for couples. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 30(3), 167-173.

Ping, R. M., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). Understanding gesture: Is the listener’s motor system involved? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 195–204.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 6
What are the three ground rules for both the speaker and listener in the speaker-listener technique? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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