Fighting Respectfully 1.3: Attentive Listening

Gridlock to Dialogue

Yesterday, we talked about how we can move perpetual problems from gridlock to dialogue. As we discuss how to have an effective dialogue today, let’s remember that, with perpetual problems, solving the problem is not the goal; getting to know your partner’s viewpoint is. Attentive listening, the process we’ll look at today, is also helpful with solvable problems, but the goal is different. If you have a solvable problem, solve it. If it’s a perpetual problem, don’t even try.


Psychology pioneer Carl Rogers (1902–1987) modeled this high regard of people in his client-centered approach to counseling. The concept of “mirroring” is one of his most significant contributions to the therapeutic relationship. Mirroring refers to the dialogic practice of reflecting back to the speaker the words that the receiver has heard.

Without adding any commentary or opinion, the listener simply uses the words of the speaker to demonstrate attentive listening. In this way the receiver images, or reflects, the message of his or her partner, sending a clear message of respect and care, a feature of relating that keeps relationships strong. As I work with clients, I incorporate this kind of dialogue in counseling sessions, modeling for them the kind of communication that helps maintain a healthy bond.

The Couple’s Dialogue

In his best-selling book, Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix takes this concept into the world of marriage therapy to help couples communicate effectively by listening accurately, understanding and validating their partner’s point of view, and expressing empathy for their partner’s feelings. The “Couple’s Dialogue” is an exercise in which partners mirror or reflect back to each other what they hear the other saying, using the following steps:

First, the couple chooses who will be the sender and who will be the receiver. For the sake of this post, let’s say the couple decides that the female will be the first sender.

Next, the sender describes what she’s thinking or feeling. Her partner then mirrors, repeats back, what he hears her express, using as many of her words as possible. During this process, the he may ask clarifying questions, but shouldn’t analyze her or make interpretations or express frustrations or criticisms.

Then he asks if he understands accurately, and if she affirms that he does, the receiver asks if there’s more. This process continues until she feels he has heard and understood everything communicated.

Third, he summarizes the whole message. Fourth, he validates the her message, affirming that the sender has made sense to the receiver. This does not mean he agrees with her viewpoint; it only means he understands her perspective.

Fifth, he then expresses empathy for her feelings.

Sixth, when he has completed mirroring, validating, and showing empathy, he asks permission to present his viewpoint. Then the individuals switch roles and the receiver becomes the sender. This is not a time to respond to her perspective, but to simply offer his own. Remember, this isn’t about solving problems; it’s about being fully present to your partner.

How Can I Help?

When I use this exercise in my work with clients, I add a step between steps five and six. I encourage the receiver to ask what the partner needs from him or her regarding the topic of discussion. This is where the negotiation skills come into play. Identify areas of non-negotiability, and then look for areas of flexibility. This creates a spirit of teamwork and provides a context of healing for old wounds re-injured or new ones inflicted. It also communicates that the receiver thinks highly of the speaker, and wishes to respect his or her needs and interests.

Take A Break

I also suggest that the couple take a substantial break before switching roles so as to keep the conversation slow enough to increase the likelihood of empathic connection, and to ensure that both partners have the opportunity to feel completely heard and understood.

A Snapshot

Here’s a snapshot of the process:

Note: One person presents one issue at a time.

1. Person #1 (Speaker) expresses the problem and talks about the feelings around it.

2. Person #2 (Receiver) (okay to stop and mirror the content in small segments)

  • Mirrors what speaker says, as verbatim as possible
  • “Is that it? Did I get it right?” (Yes – move on; No – do it again)
  • “Is there more?”
  • When there’s no more, receiver gives a nutshell/summary
  • “Is that it? Did I get it?” (Yes – move on; No – do it again)
  • “What can I do to help?” or “What do you need from me?”

3. Take a Break

4. Repeat, reversing speaker and receiver roles

This process will take some time to become habitual, but keep practicing and tweaking until it feels natural. And remember, if it doesn’t seem like it’s working, get help. You may simply need some coaching to make the process your default practice.

Make sense?


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