You’ve probably heard of active listening. Well, how often do we really use it? Rarely, because the communication process usually goes by a series of (usually accurate) leaps and guesses. But when the leaps start going off on tangents, and the guesses start being the wrong guess, things can get sideways fast. So let’s review the hard-core version of active listening.
For this, I’d like to thank a couple who, for reasons of confidentiality, I’ll call the Killeachothers. For them, progress was when their relationship went from mutual combat– one of the few things they agreed on was that it wasn’t one partner abusing the other– to verbal sparring. We had session after session, and they wouldn’t give up– some kind of testament to commitment– but they had a terrible time communicating and their arguments went nowhere. They interrupted each other and talked over each other so much that it was nearly impossible. So one day I went to the following procedure, slowing everything down drastically:
1) Partner A says something in 25 words or less. It has to be about one thing only, so the words and, or, but, or any other conjunction can’t be used.
2) Partner B paraphrases the statement or repeats it verbatim, also within 25 words or less with no conjunctions.
3) Partner A confirms that the message was understood or corrects the paraphrase.
4) Partner B confirms that partner A’s confirmation is accurate.
5) Partner B now gets to respond to the original partner A statement, again in 25 words or less with no conjunctions.
6) Now, with A and B roles reversed, return to step 1; the recipient of the original statement can now reply or respond.
If you’ve read the previous post, “Let’s Talk About Our Relationship II” you may recognize this as the deep communication process outlined by R.D. Laing. Looks and sounds really, really, tedious and time consuming, no? We made more progress in that session than in the previous ten.
Why is this? At the simplest level, it makes impossible the usual type of “listening” that we all do– as soon as I hear something I want to respond to, I quit listening because I’m just waiting my turn to talk. Sorry, happens to us all. You may have even experienced it with your therapist.
The other thing that this excruciatingly slow protocol prevents is a phenomenon all couple counselors know about, which I think of as “dueling issues.” You may have already guessed what I mean. Partner A launches a criticism: “You hog all the covers when we’re sleeping.” Partner B responds, “You leave your dirty underwear lying on the floor in the bathroom.” Partner A’s response? “Well, you leave dirty dishes on the counter!” Partner B: Well, you leave food wrappers in the back seat of the car.” And so on.
The thing is that each charge may, in itself, be accurate. But it doesn’t get the conversation anywhere. It’s just a compilation of complaints. Mrs. Killeachother (yes, they were a married, heterosexual couple) named the process “caboosing” after the image of the charge/counter-charge process being like an ever-lengthening train where each car represented another issue. In fact, this painful process of compiling grievances can bury any real issue. This guarantees endless bickering, which can’t even be called an argument.
So here’s the most basic point for successful arguing: pick any one issue and talk about it. Allow that your partner has other valid issues, but pick one, and one only. You may not finish it in one session and may do another session (not with a therapist; just with each other) on another issue, even in the same block of time. But no “caboosing.”