Last week, I wrote about certain aspects of communication that should be avoided at all costs. This week, as promised, I want to focus on some specific things you can implement to improve your ability to communicate, especially about sensitive subjects.
One point I want to emphasize is that many, if not most, couples seem to go around and around about the same issues from time to time. While very common, this can also be very frustrating. If you find yourself in that situation you might consider that the reason the argument keeps re-appearing is that you have never successfully gotten to the underlying root cause of the issue.
According to the PREP marriage enrichment program, these are called hidden issues. PREP, by the way, is a six-week course that I will be facilitating at the college in October and November.
If hidden issues are the reason for your frequent and repeated arguments, you just might want to discover what they are if you have any hope of finally putting them to rest. I wrote a column about hidden issues back in February. Feel free to send me an email and request a copy if you would like one.
The PREP curriculum also teaches the speaker-listener-technique, which is incredibly simple, but not necessarily easy. Many couples fall into the trap of wanting more to be understood than they are interested in understanding their mate. I've heard this referred to as the "shoot and reload" method of communicating where each party listens more to what he or she is thinking than to what the other is actually saying.
I think many folks fear that by listening and understanding the other they may be misinterpreted as also agreeing with the other. Wrong! You did not marry your clone – at least I hope you didn't. You will disagree on many issues, both large and small. This is normal and actually healthy for the relationship if you can come to appreciate your differences.
There are simple rules for the speaker-listener technique. First, you determine who will be the speaker and who will be the listener. The speaker holds what the folks at PREP call "The Floor" card.
Rule No. 1 for the speaker is that he or she must speak for himself or herself and avoid mind reading at all costs. It is quite insulting to be told what you are thinking, especially since the one who is guessing is usually inaccurate. Well, if you don't like someone reading your mind, perhaps it's a good idea to refrain from doing it to someone else?
The second rule for the speaker is to keep your statements brief – not go on and on. The purpose of using the speaker-listener technique is to achieve understanding, unlike the shoot and reload method, which has persuasion as its primary goal. By keeping your statements brief, you are able to put into practice rule No. 3, which is to stop and let the listener paraphrase.
Again, if your goal is to convince your partner that you are right and he or she is wrong, then simply keep talking and never stop. But, if you truly want them to understand and to know that they understand accurately, you must give them a chance to tell you what they have heard you say.
Paraphrase calls upon the listener to state in his or her own words what he or she has heard, without agreeing, disagreeing or qualifying in any way.
Paraphrasing is not simply parroting back the speaker's own words. That just demonstrates an ability to memorize words -- it does not indicate understanding. By putting in your own words what you believe the other has said, both parties are able to determine whether what was said is truly what was heard and if understanding has taken place.
There are just two rules for the listener, but they are vital to the overall success of the communication process. Rule No. 1 is to paraphrase what you hear, which I hope I've sufficiently covered. This is often easier said than done. We humans are able to think at a far greater speed than most people can speak. Therefore, we often listen to our own thoughts in addition to, or instead of, the other person's voice. To truly listen well, you must turn off your inner voice and totally focus on what is being said to you. Knowing that there will be a quiz should help motivate you to pay attention.
The second rule for the listener is to focus on the speaker's message and to not rebut. Here's where it can get dicey. So often when we hear something we don't agree with, we want to jump in and correct the error. Again, that's fine if you really don't care about the relationship and you just want to win over your partner. I suggest it is far more effective and productive to fully hear what the other is saying and save your rebuttal for when you have the floor.
And, finally, there are rules for both. The first such rule is that the speaker has the floor and he or she is the only one who can speak for him or herself. If you don't have the floor, you simply wait your turn and put your full attention on the message coming your way.
There will be times when the listener is verbalizing what he or she heard from the speaker. But, since he or she can only state what they heard from the speaker, the speaker retains control of the floor as he or she is still in the role of speaker.
The final rule for both is that the parties share the floor. This is a conversation conducted as two separate monologues of sorts. It is vital that each person have a chance to be listened to and understood. Therefore, it really doesn't matter who goes first.
I urge you to give the floor and the speaker-listener technique a try. You'll likely stumble at first and interrupt or try to over talk your mate, but with practice my hunch is you'll get real good at communicating -- even in delicate areas.
Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.