Reflective Listening and Fair Fighting in Marriage Counseling for Improved Communication

Do you find yourself fighting all the time, or avoiding subjects with your partner that could cause conflict? What about not saying anything because the subject is too emotional? These common issues can be solved through reflective listening: a way to hear, understand, and empathize with each other.

Tips for Reflective Listening and Fair Fighting

1) Find out what is bothering you. Identify what the issue is for you, and consider jotting it down.

2) Check in with your goals. What would be acceptable to you? (Remember the idea is not to win but to come up with mutually satisfying and peaceful solutions to an issue.)

3) Set a time. Why not make an appointment so you both are not pressured, distracted, or obligated with other things. How about giving your selves an hour or so?

4) One person is the sender to begin, the other is the receiver. Then you switch later. For the sender, try non-judgmental “I” statements, that include their behavior. Try not to say things like “You make me so angry when you are a jerk….”. Instead, speak about your feelings and reactions using “I” statements: “I feel ______ when ______.” For example: “I feel angry and hurt when the budgeted money is overspent.” The idea is to be clear and specific without being overly attacking personally. Keep breathing and try not to go on and on.

5) The receiver practices REFLECTIVE LISTENING, and puts their immediate reactions “on the shelf”. In other words, RESERVE JUDGEMENT until you’ve heard the whole story. Try not to interrupt. Listen to what your partner is saying and try to understand what they are saying. Following a few sentences, summarize what the sender says. Once in a while, ask the sender if there is more, or if you got it right. Take a breath to give your self time to summarize without judgment. The goal is to hear and understand your partner, even if they have to clarify something they said. “What I’m hearing you say is you feel angry when the budgeted amount isn’t kept and it’s overspent.”

6) Switch Roles. Then it’s the others turn to speak, be heard, and understood! Before you speak, take a few breaths and get in touch with you self. What are your thoughts and feelings? Consider what thoughts and feelings to take “off the shelf”. Stay in the present, and check in whether or not what you want to say to your partner has shifted. Then use “I” messages. Maybe you have the foresight to propose specific solutions to your goals, and invite the other to propose solutions, too! 
“I feel frustrated about our budget amounts when we haven’t talked recently about how much things cost now. Could we talk about saving a bit more, and how much certain things have increased in price?”

This kind of communication and listening increases intimacy. You try to take the other’s perspective, or see the problem through their eyes. Remember those old fights where you are so busy getting ready to pounce back with what you HAVE to say, that neither of you resolve anything? This process of speaking one at a time, listening, and reflecting, bypasses this quick “back and forth” style of communication, that often escalates to fights where people attack each other verbally. All couples want to be heard and understood, which can increase how much empathy partners feel for each other. I often invite couples to practice this tool outside of session, and to begin with subjects that are easier for them. Then build up to the subjects that used to cause blow-ups, but don’t when reflective listening is used! Why not learn it for the benefit of your relationship?

Remember one person can calm down a fight by practicing reflective listening, and you don’t have to tell you’re partner, just do it! Later when you talk they’ll appreciate what you did, and think about how they could do that sometime. Couples can start to win-win instead of win-lose with this tool, and communicate in much deeper ways than they even thought possible, which can increase sexual intimacy in the long run.

Jim Bowen MA LPC has been assisting individuals and couples since 1992, with offices in Boulder and Denver. Contact Jim with email or call him at 303-534-8717. Why not call for a free consultation?