One of the most commonly touted techniques of standard marital therapy is known as “active listening.” In this technique each person is asked to listen to the other’s perspective to the extent that each can repeat back what the other said. The goal of active listening is to hear each other in an empathic and nonjudgmental way. It can be a very useful technique, except when it is most commonly prescribed… during conflict. When this type of communication is used to air grievances against each other, it can be incredibly difficult and painful. However, this type of communication can be extremely beneficial if you are discussing something other than your partner.
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman discusses using this technique to facilitate what he refers to as the stress-reducing conversation. It is what most people think of as a, “How was your day, dear?” discussion enabling reconnection at the end of a long day. However, this type of conversation can easily increase stress if one partner feels that the other is not listening or offering empathy. That is why using active listening is so important. The primary rule here is to talk about whatever is on your mind aside from your relationship. This is not the time to discuss conflicts between the two of you; the goal is to connect with each other by offering emotional support.
Here are a few other principles to keep in mind when having the stress-reducing conversation:
-Take turns talking (you may want to have a 5-10 minute time limit per person).
– Do not give advice unless it is requested.
– Communicate genuine interest in what your partner is saying.
– Express support, even if you do not agree with your partner’s position.
– Show appropriate affection.
– Validate the emotions that are being expressed.
This type of communication will not necessarily put an end to all of your marital conflicts. But, if you and your spouse make this kind of connection-focused dialogue a habit outside of conflicts, you will likely feel more understood and valued by your spouse even in the midst of a dispute.