The Speaker-Listener Technique


by Noah Hercky, LMFT | Director of Marriage and Family Therapy

Of all the communication-improving strategies I’ve seen in my career as a couples therapist, there is perhaps none more helpful than the Speaker Listener Technique, developed by Howard Markman, et al. in their book, Fighting for Your Marriage (2010). This technique adds structure to the conversation and forces partners to slow down, listen, validate, and respond. The best part is, a couples therapist need not be present (though it can help). Just think how much money could be saved in session-fees! Here’s how it works:

Overview:

  1. Partners take turns speaking, using a physical object (e.g. pen, stapler, etc.) to denote who is the speaker.
  2. The speaker shares their thoughts, and the listener listens silently.
  3. Once the speaker has finished speaking, the listener responds by reflecting back the speaker’s message as best they understand it.
  4. If the speaker agrees that the listener has understood and reflected their thoughts accurately, then the physical object is exchanged and the roles are reversed.

The whole idea here is that the Speaker and Listener work together until the Listener can demonstrate an understanding of the Speaker’s message in terms the Speaker agrees to. Sounds easy, right? It can be, but it often isn’t. Here are some additional “rules” to help keep things on track:

Rules for the Speaker:

  1. Keep your message brief; under 5 sentences is ideal. This can be tough, but try to trust that you will have plenty of turns to get it all out. Sharing too much at once is likely to overwhelm your partner.
  2. Use “I statements,” (e.g. “I feel angry that,” “I worry that,” “I find myself wanting,” etc.) and avoid speculating about your partner’s experience.
  3. Don’t criticize your partner. Remember: Lodging a valid complaint does not entail hurling insults or launching an attack on your partner’s character.

Rules for the Listener:

  1. Try to listen without planning your response. Instead, focus all your attention on trying to understand the message. If you miss something or forget what was said, feel free to ask the Speaker for clarification or to repeat.
  2. If you start speaking about your own thoughts and feelings, stop and refocus on what you heard the speaker say. If it helps, use the template, “What I hear you saying is ___.”
  3. The idea is to paraphrase, not parrot. When you parrot (meaning repeat verbatim what was just said), you only prove that you listened to the words. When you paraphrase (meaning reflecting the message back in your own words), you prove that you really understood the meaning of the message.

Consider giving the Speaker Listener Technique a try with your partner. I usually recommend couples do this for 15 minutes per day, in a quiet space, when they can be free of other distractions or obligations. If you find that it helps resolve a stubborn disagreement, congratulations! You just became your own couples therapist. If, however, the conversation still goes sideways or stalls-out, please reach out to CFA to schedule a session with one of our clinicians. Our couples therapists are well-trained to help partners repair and reconnect. Don’t wait.

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