The Speaker-Listener Technique
When it comes to great communication, you can’t beat the simple advice of James.
“Take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
That is easier said than done, right? In fact, this may be hardest to do in marriage because of the great potential to feel hurt by those we love.
The Speaker-Listener Technique offers you an alternative way of communicating when issues are hot or sensitive, or likely to get that way. Any conversation in which you want to increase clarity and safety can benefit from this technique. Most couples (although not all) can decide whether to go out for Chinese food without this technique, but many can use more help when dealing with sensitive issues like money, sex, and in-laws. It’s the structure of the technique that makes it work. Here are the rules.
RULES FOR BOTH OF YOU:
1. The speaker has the floor. Use a real object to designate the floor. When giving seminars, we hand out small cards or pieces of linoleum or carpet for couples to use. You can use anything, though—the TV remote, a piece of paper, a paperback book, anything at all. If you do not have the floor, you are the Listener. As Speaker and Listener you follow the rules for each role. Note that the Speaker keeps the floor while the Listener paraphrases, keeping it clear who is in which role all the time.
2. Share the floor. You share the floor over the course of a conversation. One has it to start and may say a number of things. At some point, you switch roles and continue back and forth as the floor changes hands.
3. No problem solving. When using this technique you are going to focus on having good discussions. You must consciously avoid coming to solutions prematurely.
RULES FOR THE SPEAKER:
1. Speak for yourself. Don’t mind read.Talk about your thoughts, feelings, and concerns, not your perceptions or interpretations of the Listener’s point of view or motives. Try to use “I” statements, and talk about your own point of view.
2. Talk in small chunks. You will have plenty of opportunity to say all you need to say, so you don’t have to say it all at once. It is very important to keep what you say in manageable pieces to help the Listener actively listen. If you are in the habit of giving long monologues, remember that having the floor protects you from interruption, so you can afford to pause for the paraphrase to be sure your partner understands you. A good rule of thumb is to keep your statements to just a sentence or two, especially when first learning the technique.
3. Stop and let the Listener paraphrase. After saying a bit, perhaps a sentence or two, stop and allow the Listener to paraphrase what you just said. If the paraphrase was not quite accurate, you should politely restate what was not heard in the way it was intended to be heard. Your goal is to help the Listener hear and understand your point of view.
RULES FOR THE LISTENER:
1. Paraphrase what you hear. To paraphrase the Speaker, briefly repeat back what you heard the Speaker say, using your own words if you like, to make sure you understand what was said. The key is that you show your partner that you are listening as you restate what you heard, without any interpretations. If the paraphrase is not quite right (which happens often), the Speaker should gently clarify the point being made. If you truly don’t understand some phrase or example, you may ask the Speaker to clarify or repeat, but you may not ask questions on any other aspect of the issue unless you have the floor.
2. Don’t rebut. Focus on the Speaker’s message. While in the Listener role, you may not offer your opinion or thoughts. This is the hardest part of being a good Listener. If you are upset by what your partner says, you need to edit out any response you may want to make, so you can continue to pay attention to what your partner is saying. Wait until you get the floor to state your response. As Listener, your job is to speak only in the service of understanding your partner. Any words or gestures to show your own opinions are not allowed, including making faces. Your task is to understand. Good listening does not equal agreement. You can express any disagreement when you have the floor.
Additional Helpful Thoughts for Using this Method:
When using the Speaker-Listener Technique, the Speaker is always the one who determines if the Listener’s paraphrase was on target. Only the Speaker knows what the intended message was. If the paraphrase was not quite on target, it is very important that the Speaker gently clarify or restate the point and not respond angrily or critically.
A key point: When in the Listener role, be sincere in your effort to show you are listening carefully and respectfully. Even when you disagree with the point being made by your partner, your goal is to show respect for and validation of his or her perspective. That means waiting your turn and not making faces or looking bored. Showing real respect and honor to one another is the goal. You can disagree completely with your mate on a matter and still show respect. In fact, we are told in scripture to show respect no matter what (See: 1 Peter 2:17). Just wait until you have the floor to make your points.
Two more points—first, when using the Speaker-Listener Technique, it is important to stay on the topic you mean to discuss. Many issues in marriage can become involved in one conversation, but you’ll do better on important matters if you try to stay on the issues at hand. Also, don’t try to problem solve prematurely. Focus on having a good discussion where you can get the issues on the table.
Advantages of Using the Speaker-Listener Technique:
The Speaker-Listener Technique has many advantages over unstructured conversation when discussing difficult issues. Most important is the way it counteracts the destructive styles of communication. This is crucial. It’s not that this technique is the be-all-and-end-all of good communication. It’s just one very simple way to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” and thereby limit the damage that patterns such as the danger signs can cause.
In fact, we do meet couples who try this and do not like it. We don’t get defensive about it or push it, we simply say to them, “That’s fine, as long as you have some other way to have respectful, good conversations on difficult issues. If you can do that, you don’t need this technique.”
You may be thinking, “This sure is artificial.” Agreed. In fact, that’s the key reason it is so effective. The truth is, what comes naturally to couples when difficult issues come up is often destructive and quite the opposite from being “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
Again, James shows his tendency toward purifying bluntness. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
This technique is designed to help couples keep a tight rein on their tongues. That’s why it works. When you choose to use it, you are making the choice to limit the defensive responses that come naturally and to submit yourself to a more caring, disciplined approach to understanding your mate. You are unleashing your ears and reining in your tongue. Keep in mind that although these rules are simple, simple does not always mean easy. Structure can make it easier, but sometimes it just takes hard work to communicate well.
The above article was edited from the very helpful book, A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage by Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, and Milt Bryan, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers. There was so much additional helpful information concerning the Speaker-Listener Technique (plus other useful marriage material) that we weren’t able to include in this article. You could really benefit from reading this book if you’re able to obtain a copy for yourself. In it you’ll find additional illustrations, practical examples, and important points.
This book gives many powerful and practical principles which are solidly based on Scripture with a blending of university research as to what leads to marriages that fail and what leads to marriages that thrive. Also, A Lasting Promise is focused on practical action. Unlike many books that are more theoretical or insight-oriented, this one is designed to provide a rich resource of the many thigns you can do to protect your marriage and make it better. Not only that but the things they encourage you to do have been shown in research, to make a difference for many couples. They give solid tools you can use to make your marriage stronger, happier, and lifelong to equip you to develop the full promise of your marriage.