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  • Writer's pictureDr. Maura Ferguson

DIY couples therapy hacks - Part 2

Couples therapy better communication Active Listening DIY couples therapy

Ideas to try before, during or after couples therapy:

Part 2: Active Listening for Beginners

You might think of yourself as a good listener. People may even say you are an attentive listener, but no matter how good a communicator you are, just about everyone would benefit from a particular type of active listening exercise that I will describe. Get ready to graduate to Jedi-level listening skills.

What is active listening?

Active listening is a skill that involves paying attention and understanding what someone is saying with minimal reaction or judgment. Active listening allows us to build trust, our capacity for empathy and emotional attunement to our partners. Developing this skill can benefit us within our relationship with our partner and in interpersonal relationships, including with our friends, coworkers and family members. By slowing down, active listening also increases our capacity to listen to the content of what someone is saying and the emotions they are expressing. The components of active listening prepare us to better resolve conflict, something that most close relationships could benefit from.

How is active listening different from what I'm already doing?

Try bringing attention to your everyday conversations, and you will likely notice something that almost all of us do: while someone else is talking, we simultaneously react to what they are saying. Sometimes this reaction happens internally; other times, we react by changing our body language or facial expression; in other instances, we may interrupt what the person is saying. In any of these instances, we are distracted by our internal reactions and likely formulating what we will say or do when the person finishes speaking. And here is the thing: it is difficult to react and develop what we will say next while really taking in what the person is saying. This exercise aims to reduce reactivity to listen deeply.

In this active listening exercise, you are your partner. You will take turns following a sequence of steps. You will complete all the steps before changing to the other partner's turn. Between turns, you will take some time to reflect on what the process felt like. It is essential to remember that this exercise is very different from most of our communication styles. This exercise is challenging but a worthwhile way to slow down and listen to one another. Expecting it to come quickly at first can be a setup to feel frustrated.

First, set aside time when you will not be interrupted by work or family responsibilities. You will want to find somewhere to sit facing each other. Each of you will need to take time to read through the steps before starting, and you will each need to decide who will speak or listen first. If one of you has difficulty expressing yourself in the relationship, try starting with that person in the speaking role.

Step #1 Speaking

To start, the partner who will speak first chooses a personal but relatively neutral topic to tell their partner about. Ideally, this will be a topic that the listening partner has yet to hear about, such as what your day at work was like or a memory that has yet to be shared. The speaking partner will have the opportunity to talk for five minutes without interrupting or abbreviating their time. They do not need to speak constantly but may sit quietly for a moment to allow further thoughts to emerge. The speaking partner should speak from their own experiences using I statements as a guideline as much as possible.

Step #2 Active Listening (note Step #1 and #2 happen simultaneously)

While their partner is speaking, the listening partner will be listening in a new way than they usually do: actively. Their job is to listen to what their partner is telling them as much as possible so that they can repeat to them what they heard without adding their thoughts or feelings about what they heard. The listening partner can nod and sit neutrally to show they are listening but cannot speak while in the listening role.

Step #3 Active Listener recounts what they heard

The next step is for the active listening partner to tell the speaking partner as much as they can recall what they heard the speaking partner say. The goal is to mirror or even repeat what they listened to the speaking partner say without adding any opinions about what they heard. The active listening partner will do their best to remember as much as possible that their partner said during their 5 minutes. It will not be possible to remember everything.

Step #4 Debrief:

Each partner takes time to tell the other partner how the previous step felt. How did it feel to have five minutes to speak without being interrupted? How was it to listen without speaking for five minutes? What did each of you notice about how this felt? Did anything go as you would have predicted? Did anything surprise you? What felt the most difficult? What felt good? It is important to take your time with this step.

Step #5 Switch Roles:

Now the active listener will become the speaker and vice versa.

This active listening exercise forces communication patterns to slow down. If the exercise felt productive, try practicing it again together. Over time, you may expand the length each of you has to speak or venture into less neutral topics you have wanted to discuss together. Suppose the exercise proved too complicated or did not feel productive. In that case, you could benefit from practicing this exercise with the confidentiality, structure and expertise that a couples or relationship therapist can provide.

What are the benefits of active listening?

Active listening is an exercise intended to shift entrenched communication patterns, not to replace how you converse naturally with your partner or anyone else. Its intention is mainly to slow down, reduce reactivity and bring increased awareness and thoughtfulness to patterns of how we speak and listen to one another.

Active listening is a skill that is helpful in many settings, including couples therapy. When we learn how to listen actively, we reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding one another and increase our chance of seeing another person's perspective. By slowing down, a couple can increase a sense of emotional safety and trust within a relationship and foster a safe space for supporting one another while reducing the pattern of jumping to conclusions that can lead to criticism and judgment. When we listen actively to one another, we develop our capacity to empathize with our partner, building a stronger, more resilient relationship.

I recommend you also read my other posts on couples therapy and on DIY couples therapy hacks as you consider whether couples therapy is right for you or if you and your partner can address challenges together without a third person. If you would like to book an appointment, you can do so on my contact page.

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