Want a quick way to improve communication between you and your partner?
Try something called the
reflective listening exercise.
Here’s how it works: One person (the sender) speaks for 30 seconds to the other (the receiver) about any topic he or she wants. Start with something small, like a problem at work, then build to something with more emotional intensity like an argument you had a few days ago.
While the sender is talking, the receiver looks at the sender and simply listens and tries to understand, neither interrupting nor asking questions. (There can be no distractions at the time, like looking at a computer or TV.)
During this time it’s important to put our own thoughts and feelings aside, which is not always easy because the receiver may be triggered by what they hear.
When the time is up, the receiver will paraphrase what they just heard. (“What I heard you say is…” is a good opener.) The sender then has the opportunity to confirm that the receiver heard them accurately or try to correct them if they didn’t quite get it. Refrain from defensiveness and reaction if your partner corrects you; this is not an attack, simply a correction.
Then the sender and receiver switch roles. Practice it a few times, then stop for the day. The next time you do the exercise, increase the time to 60 seconds per person, using the exact same approach.
The goal of the exercise is twofold:
- to practice being more precise in our communication
- and to learn a new way of listening so that the sender feels heard, understood and empathized, which is at the heart of any healthy relationship. In these ways, we are “in the moment” with one another.
The mistake that we tend to make with our partners is that when we listen we are mostly preparing our defense or our attack, so much so that we aren’t really hearing or acknowledging what is being said; parallel conversations do nothing for connection. This exercise can represent a dramatic shift in how you communicate to your partner.
David Sternberg, LICSW, is the founder and director of DC Talk Therapy.