When it comes to great communication, you can’t beat the simple advice written in the book 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. That is why you could find the Speaker Listener Technique to be helpful.
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)
Unleashing Your Ears, and Reining in Your Tongue
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.
This article comes from the very helpful book, A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. It is written by Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, and Milt Bryan, and is 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. In it you’ll find additional illustrations, practical examples, and important points. 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.
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13 responses to “The Speaker Listener Technique”
(UNITED STATES) This was a good article to read, but research has proven that this method is only minimally effective at best. In most cases, it does not work.
(SCOTLAND) Can you please site your source for the research?
(AMERICA) I beg to differ! I have seen HUNDREDS of couples use this tool and make dramatic discoveries about their relationship. I have taught this technique at Army marriage retreat weekends for three years, and the Speaker/Listener Technique works!
(NORWAY) Mark, although I believe you, this is what we can anecdotal “evidence.” Kevin, without a link to a credible source supporting your claim, your comment is worthless.
I was separated from my wife for nearly two years. I credit this tool specifically with overcoming our severe communication problems 16 years ago. We just celebrated 20 years.
I use this in business now and find that the only time it doesn’t work in solving problems is when one of the parties has no intention of hearing, learning, dealing with and solving the issues of conflict. If that is you, certainly it will not work.
Thank you Walt, for sharing this. We’ve heard so many negative comments about this technique from different people who hear about it. But we know from first-hand experience ourselves that it DOES work. Your testimony –both in marriage success and in business is another confirmation. The problem is that people don’t want to slow down their thinking and fighting process –they just want to go with their gut urges of arguing it out without any kind of structure. This technique (which can be modified in many ways) makes you actually listen as well as speak, so BOTH people will have to listen from deep within and THEN respond. We stand by this technique that it’s a great tool for helping people come to a better understanding of one another. And when they do, they have the opportunity to reconcile their differences. Thanks again for sharing.
(USA) A lot of it depends upon the people that are using this method and why they’re using it. If both spouses (instead of one) aren’t convinced that they need to slow down in how they argue with each other, then it probably wouldn’t be effective. It could bring more frustration.
When spouses experience differences with each other and the fighting gets nasty and disrespectful and hurts those involved, then it would be good for that couple to come to some kind of truce and look for another way of approaching the subject so they can bridge that which is separating them.
So many couples have what author Dallas Demmit calls the “How-can-I-get-you-to-shut-up-and-listen-to-me?” mindset in how they approach their marriage “partner”. They need to replace it with “What-can-I-do-to-create-a-safe-place-where-understanding-can-take-root-and-grow?” That’s what the Speaker Listener Technique can do. It’s about listening AND talking with each other — slowing things down and deliberately making the effort to truly hear what each person is trying to say.
It might not be something that they use every time they argue, but it can be good to use at times. However, both spouses have to see the importance of using it.
My husband and I don’t use it very often, but we have at times. Our relationship and being healthy in how we work through our differences, is a commitment we have made that is more important to us than just airing our opinions and letting the strongest one “win”. When one spouse “wins” an argument and the other “loses” then the relationship loses as a result.
It’s like any tool that one may have in his or her tool box. You may not use it every time (or you may — depending upon the couple) but it’s nice to know that you’ve figured out how to use it and WILL use it if it’s needed. And when you first start using it, things may be more awkward (and sometimes almost comical) for a while until you’ve gotten past the learning curve, but eventually it could be quite useful.
Our problem is that we can get so caught up into ourselves as individual human beings that we will push over the other person sometimes to get our point across. But marriage is about partnership with the other spouse and with the Lord to be a team where the other (as well as the relationship) is more important than ourselves. When we truly “get” that, then we will reach out to use whatever will help us to honor each other.
As it says in God’s Word, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” It’s a matter of speaking respectfully, and treating each other “as unto the Lord.”
I believe this technique can help with that. Even if hardly anyone uses this technique, save a few, it’s still a good tool.
(USA) I have used the speaker listener technique for several years now. I have found it most effective when the complement is in conflict and ready to resolve the conflict.
In most cases the issue that’s arguable is NOT the issue at all, but the point that started the argument.
(USA) I have found the speaker listener technique to be a huge frustration and a hindrance to resolution of issues in my marriage. I have always encorporated the core principles of the technique in my attitudes towards conversation as simple politeness. However, if the partner in conversation demands that you exercise the principles, but refuses to yield the floor to allow conversation to take place, or even to confirm that the other understands what was said, then the whole effort is quite frankly useless.
I will listen for 1/2 to 1 hour or longer at times, and be thanked that I have heard them out. I also am accused of stonewalling the conversation when I have nothing to say after the lengthy digressions are complete. Thus, the whole purpose is defeated.
Not only has my input been turned to disrespect, but I have not been allowed to even verbalize my understanding of her issues, and especially be a partner in the conversation or the relationship by being alowed to speak on the issue for myself. I am a distant partner left with no part to play in a one sided relationship. The result… just listen, and do your best at figuring it out and hoping you do understand, and essentially, do as you’re told. It is lonely, but it’s all you’ve got to call relationship.
(US) It would seem that this is not a problem with the process but a participant in the process. You will only get out what both parties put in. In this case one participant refusing to submit to the process is hindering what you both can “get out.” Unfortunately for any kind of good communication it takes TWO willing participants.
I too have used this process when the other party has not reciprocated in active listening. It was still helpful in hearing their position but frustrating nonetheless when it was not reciprocated, but again this is a problem with a participant not the process.
I just don’t understand when I am trying to talk to my girl she won’t let me say what I have on my chest. If I even start to say anything about how I feel it’s an argument and it’s a fight and I’ll get it turned around on me. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried several options. I guess if I don’t like it get out.
The technique by itself is of limited worth. A source that has been extremely useful in conjunction with this is How We Love, by Milan & Kay Yerkovitch, who explain why we each have the unresolved needs that lead to one-sided relationships. Can’t recommend it enough.
Your technique is a proven tool; we are proof that it works. Thank you.