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In the last section, we discussed dealing with the ex. One technique for dealing with the ex is revealing hidden issues. I find that even though it often wasn’t done in the marriage, after a divorce revealing hidden issues can still be productive. Four indications of hidden issues are wheel spinning, trivial triggers, avoidance, and scorekeeping.
In this section, we will discuss the Speaker-Listener Technique. There are six basic steps to this technique. They are the speaker has the floor, share the floor, no problem solving, avoiding mind reading, don’t go on and on, and stop and let the listener paraphrase. The purpose of this section is to provide a technique for structuring discussions between divorced or separated clients on sensitive issues. I have found the Speaker-Listener technique to be a helpful communication strategy to teach to clients undergoing conflict. However, you may find that it becomes one-sided.
Do you recall Mike from the last section? Mike and I discussed the Speaker-Listener Technique. Mike did not get very good results from Heather using this technique. But when I treated Holly, the Speaker-Listener Technique was a very productive technique. Think of your divorced client. How could this technique help improve his or her communication? Would playing this section in an upcoming session be productive?
Holly, age 25, had divorced Andy a year before this session. Holly stated, "A year after our divorce and we are locked into an argument regarding deciding whether or not to enroll our youngest daughter in preschool for the coming term. 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 when our only real concern should be our daughter."
Later, Holly convinced Andy to attend a special session in my office to discuss communication. I asked Andy to tell me what he thought about Holly’s statement that he was stalling and not talking. Andy stated, "I know we need to talk about it, but it just gets so complicated so fast, and we’re both pissed off before I know what’s happened." Since Andy and Holly were clearly having problems with beginning the discussion and with escalation, I recommended practicing the Speaker-Listener technique to prepare for the discussion about their daughter’s enrollment in preschool.
6 Steps in the Speaker-Listener Technique
♦ #1 The Speaker Has the Floor
I stated to Andy and Holly, "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 clients find using a concrete object to represent ‘having the floor’ is really helpful. I gave Andy and Holly a piece of carpet to use as a representative object. I stated, "That way, when you have the floor, you really have the floor!"
♦ #2 Share the Floor
Next, I stated, "The second rule for both of you is that you can share the floor. Although the Speaker has the floor first, you can pass it back and forth during the conversation." Clearly, this is a trust issue. Each client can learn to trust that the other will give them the floor when they need it, so that they can in turn yield the floor when the other client needs to speak. Do you agree that having a solid object to pass back and forth can be extremely helpful in making sure divorced clients share the floor?
♦ #3 No Problem Solving
I explained to Andy and Holly, "In addition to the speaker has the floor and sharing the floor, 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 divorced clients focus on trying to solve the problem, they listen less to what their partner has to say."
Andy stated, "Yeah, that sounds like us. I get so focused on trying to decide whether our daughter 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 Holly’s saying!"
♦ #4 Avoiding Mind Reading
Now that I had discussed the ground rules for both speakers to Andy and Holly, I outlined the rules for the client in the speaker role. The first of these rules, as you are aware, is avoiding mind reading. I stated to Holly, "When you’re speaking, try to talk just about what you feel and think, don’t try to interpret or guess at what Andy wants and thinks. Try to use ‘I’ statements as much as you can."
♦ #5 Don’t Go On and On
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 divorced clients to practice breaking what they need to say in to manageable pieces. How can you help your clients learn to avoid going on and on?
♦ #6 Stop and Let the Listener Paraphrase
The final ground rule for the speaker is to stop and let the listener paraphrase. I stated, "Holly, when you say something which is really important to you, stop and let Andy 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 Andy, but it gives you both a chance to make sure Andy understands what you are saying."
I stated to Andy, "For the listener, there are two important ground rules. The first relates to what I just explained to Holly. You can make sure to paraphrase what she says to you. This lets Holly know you’re really listening, and gives you a chance to make sure you understand how she is feeling. 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 Holly has to say, and paying attention."
Andy replied, "So I hold on to all of my stuff until we switch roles, and then Holly takes a turn to just listen to me? That makes sense. So when I’m the listener, I paraphrase what Holly says, and don’t argue with what she has to say." Holly added, "and when I’m the speaker, I make sure not to mind read, to keep what I have to say in manageable bits, and make sure I give Andy 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 Andy and Holly displayed understanding of the Speaker-Listener technique and seemed receptive, we practiced discussing their daughter’s preschool in our session. To begin, Andy took the piece of carpet and took the speaker role. Andy stated, "I’m not sure our daughter is ready for preschool this year. She acts pretty young, and I’m not sure how she’d do."
Holly then paraphrased this statement, saying, "You’re worried she would get overwhelmed by older-acting kids?" Andy responded, "Well, partly, but I’m also not sure she’s ready to be away from home 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, Andy and Holly demonstrated a good grasp of the speaker listener technique. When Holly did not pick up on Andy’s real worries, he gently but clearly reexplained his fears about starting their daughter in preschool.
In this section, we have discussed the speaker listener technique for structuring conversations for divorced clients on sensitive issues. There are six basic steps to this technique. They are the speaker has the floor, share the floor, no problem solving, avoiding mind reading, don’t go on and on, and stop and let the listener paraphrase.
In the next section, we will discuss finding and experiencing forgiveness. I find that three steps to forgiveness can help clients cope with divorce. These three steps are forgiveness gets the hate out, self forgiveness, and forgiving the former spouse.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Øverup, C. S., Ciprić, A., Gad Kjeld, S., Strizzi, J. M., Sander, S., Lange, T., & Hald, G. M. (2020). Cooperation after divorce: A randomized controlled trial of an online divorce intervention on hostility. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication.
van Scheppingen, M. A., & Leopold, T. (2019). Trajectories of life satisfaction before, upon, and after divorce: Evidence from a new matching approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.
Question 13: What are the six basic steps to the speaker listener technique? To select and enter your answer go to Test.
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