Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Coaching Listening Skills May Help Couples

May 26, 2008

I have seen many situations where couples enter counseling in a state of crisis. They sincerely want to get along but the process of trying to resolve differences has become too painful and frustrating.

One goal of counseling is to help develop the couple's communication skills. The couple’s objective is not to win the battle of "Who is right?" but to learn to understand and emphatically respond to the partner's feelings. Listening for understanding is a difficult task for someone who is used to redefining everything to fit into his or her perspective.

In some situations, poor listening habits are so strong it takes the presence of a counselor to demonstrate the skills, observe their efforts at communication, make helpful suggestions and step in to remind them when they are breaking communication rules.

Here is some advice I've found effective in counseling couples.

Cease private discussions about areas of conflict. These discussions will take place in counseling sessions. Private attempts have gone nowhere, and further failure just leads to more discouragement. All "hot" issues are put on hold. This reduces tension and the anxiety of needing to do something which usually means more unproductive fighting and arguing.

Encourage positive behaviors. Behaviors such as doing more things for each other, being more tender and loving, giving attention, doing favors and meeting a mate's needs are encouraged. Specific examples are spelled out so the task is clear. Let the loved one know he or she is cared for and appreciated.

Apply "active listening" techniques. The couple is taught "active listening" techniques. Effective listening takes concentration and willingness to stick to good communication rules. One partner is selected as the listener, the other is the speaker, and the counselor acts as a coach.

The listener can't interrupt, offer an opinion, or rebut or dispute what is being said. The listener is to follow the speaker's line of thinking, ask questions, draw the speaker out, and paraphrase the speaker's main points to show understanding.

The listener is coached to explore deeper and to help the speaker connect the complaint to other situations when similar feelings may have been felt. The listener discovers something unique and special about the partner. Behind the complaints and conflict is a man or a woman with a past, with feelings and with a legitimate point of view.

Then the speaker and listener roles are reversed. The new speaker then has the undivided floor and gets to respond with his or her point of view. In the process of giving each party the floor and an adequate opportunity to be heard, new insights are developed about persistent conflicts.

This technique is used over four or five sessions - with practice at home - until the listening techniques are learned and are established in the couple's routine of communicating.

The improvement in communication has to be matched by effort at being more loving and considerate with each other. Accepting a mate's insensitivity is easier if the problem is seen as a communication problem rather than as a lack of caring. If no improvement takes place at home, the counselor can assume that one partner is either resisting change or has significant family-of-origin issues that prevents him or her from developing appropriate empathy.

The counselor as coach. Listening is hard for people not used to concentrating or keeping their own thoughts and emotions under control during sensitive discussions. The listener has to learn to sit on his or her emotional reactions and mounting frustration while highly personal and provocative material is being discussed.

The coach prompts, reminds, models, and suggests lines of response that keeps the listener on the task of identifying and restating feelings. The coach teaches the listener to listen for key phrases and use them in the feedback process. The listener’s task is to aid the speaker in expressing himself or herself and to push for deeper insight. The listener will have a tendency to respond rather than listen. The coach’s role is help the listener focus on what was said and what it might mean rather than to react to it.

The more detached and relaxed the listener becomes, the more the speaker perceives the listener as being emotionally available. The speaker is free to share deeper feelings instead of needing to respond to the listener’s arguments or opinions. The speaker, too, becomes more detached, relaxed and unemotional in the thinking and presentation of ideas.

Initially, the coach may have to help the speaker avoid provocative or abrasive expressions that arouse the defenses of the listener. The speaker is also coached on how to confine comments to three or four sentences so as not to overload the listener.

"Active listening" balances the power between husband and wife. The pattern of blaming, attacking, interrupting, judging, criticizing, labeling, ignoring, interpreting, discounting, withholding and denying is halted. Automatic assumptions and thoughtless retorts about the partner's motives and feelings are short-circuited. The couple is free to learn about each other.

These new communication skills are like turning on a light bulb. The couple can experience intimacy, with each finding their partner to be an emotional support. Once they understand each other, the stage is set for constructive problem-solving and negotiations. The acquisition of good communication skills offers new hope for married couples caught in a cycle of emotionally draining fights.