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As a couples counselor serving the Santa Rosa area, the skill I am most often asked to provide is help with improving communication.  Everyone has the ability to communicate, so why are so many relationships “communication challenged”?

There are several ways in which we communicate.  The most obvious is with words, yet another very powerful medium of communication is non-verbal; body language, facial expression, gestures, and even what we don’t say! For example, learning how to listen effectively communicates something powerful.  It says “What you are saying is interesting and important to me”.

When I am doing couple’s therapy I spend a lot of time teaching my clients how to listen. There are few experiences as rewarding to any person as being able to see their partner pay attention to what they are saying.  What tells a person that their partner is paying attention?  Because their partner is making eye contact, facing them, has turned off the TV, shut down the computer, turned the cell phone off or put it away away and is not looking at it or answering it, is not interrupting, and is able to keep their facial expression from reflecting sarcasm (eye rolling) or other forms of disbelief, annoyance, or outright hostility.

Sometimes a speaker says too much, for too long, and the listener gets lost.  I teach my clients to slow down and take breaks, allowing for the listener to reflect back enough of what they are hearing for the speaker to be able to say, or think, “Yes! He gets what I’m saying!”

Another prime cue that a partner is listening is their ability to ask relevant questions.  In couple’s communication counseling we work on how to ask curious questions that do not have an agenda. What does that mean?  A question with a hidden agenda sounds curious, but it’s really designed to get the answer the listener wants to hear  For example; the speaker is describing feeling frustrated about a repetitive problem.  When the listener asks “But didn’t I take care of that already?”, the speaker will likely become defensive, maybe sarcastic, maybe angry, saying something like “Well, if you took care of it already, why would I be bringing it up?” And they’re off to the races. The focus of the conversation has changed.  It’s isn’t the repetitive problem anymore – now it’s “Why don’t you ever listen to me?”, or “You’re such a nag!”.

If the listener said something like, “I remember talking with you about this last week.  I thought I corrected it, but I guess I didn’t.  Can you tell me more about what you were wanting changed?” the speaker would be disarmed, get the message that there may be interest in this topic, and cooperation, coming their way – very positive and reassuring.

Listening is a skill that everyone can learn.  Mostly, people listen to a sentence or two, and tune out while they begin to craft a response in their mind.  They stop listening. Quality marital therapy will help you improve your listening skills.

Check back for Part II in a few weeks, where I’ll write about speaking in non-blaming ways.  Remember; if you don’t make it safe for your partner to hear you, they won’t listen!


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