Active Listening: a Help or a Hindrance?

A lot of marriage counselors and marriage self-help programs make use of active listening techniques. So you would think that it is a good tool to help resolve marital problems, right? Well, that depends.

Active listening, if used properly, can improve your marriage relationship.
This method of speaking and listening for couples comes from the technique psychologists use to help individuals feel safe enough to open up, talk more, and work through their problems. For a therapist and client, it works well, as long as the client’s complaints are about anything but the therapist. However, if a client complains about the therapist, active listening usually goes out the window.[1]

So if a therapist switches away from active listening when a complaint is about him/her, shouldn’t they expect a spouse to do the same? In couples therapy the spouse, not the counselor, is the one doing the listening, and behind all the supposedly non-critical, sanitized “I” statements is an attack on the listener. How can you not feel defensive and want to protect yourself when your spouse is saying, “I feel ____ when you____.”?

And that is the key to answering our question. As John Gottman writes in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “When you really think about it, it’s not difficult to see why active listening so often fails. Bob might do his best to listen thoughtfully to Judy’s complaints. But he is not a therapist listening to a patient whine about a third party. The person his wife is trashing behind all of those “I” statements is him. … Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk.”[2]

Gottman does go on to say that there are times when the technique can be useful, and can bring couples closer together. And those times are “during discussions where you are not your spouse’s target. In this context, you’ll feel far freer to be readily supportive and understanding of your spouse and vice versa.” (emphasis added)[3]

A Shocker
A Useless Finding

If the two of you keep your emotions under control, this communication technique can help with conflict resolution. But, marital therapy based on conflict resolution fails 82% of the time.[4]

Now get ready for a real shocker. Gottman, who has probably done more truly scientific research on marriage than anyone else, discovered that “successful conflict resolution isn’t what makes marriages succeed.” (emphasis added)[5] He says that most couples in happy marriages rarely do anything that approaches active listening when they’re upset.

In those happy marriages, conflicts sometimes get resolved, and sometimes they don’t. But when they are fighting, there’s a lot of “positive affect” present, similar to when they aren’t fighting. There’s laughter, teasing, and signs of appreciation and of friendship, all predictors of marital happiness. However, Gottman says that it is a useless finding, because it can’t be taught. “You can’t take an unhappy couple and say, ‘Have more affection and humor while you’re fighting.’ People have tried to do that, with all kinds of methods. They’ll say, ‘Pretend that you’re happily married! Be nice to each other! Remember, you love each other, right?’ ‘Well, yeah.’ ‘Well, act like it!’” [6]

Friendship has to be in place already in order to make good use of this communication tool. Neither my wife nor I were good listeners, active or otherwise, because we failed to maintain a good friendship.

That is why I suggest, in my introductory article on marital self-help, very simple things you can do to ease tension between the two of you. And it is why I point out in Keeping Love Alive that you don’t want to take for granted the friend you fell in love with.

If you want to try the technique, take Dr. John Gottman’s advice and use it when the problem is something or someone other than your spouse.

The Basics of the Method

We all tend to judge and approve or disapprove of what others say. Where strong feelings are involved, this tendency blocks communication between husband and wife. Active listening means that you see your spouse’s expressed idea and attitude from his/her point of view, “sensing how it feels to be [that] person, achieving his or her frame of reference about the subject being discussed.”[7] If you haven’t experienced this, then you are not an active listener in the way psychology uses the term.

The technique is not as easy as you think. “Before each person speaks up, he or she must first restate the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”[8] This means that before you can speak, you have to get inside your spouse’s head and understand what he/she is saying and why. It does not mean, however, that you have to agree.

But you will find this tool to be therapeutic for each of you. As you take your turns to speak, you will tend to alter what you had intended to express. You will also find that the emotional charge of the conversation begins to dissolve, as well as your defensiveness, your exaggerated statements, your critical attitudes, and your differences.

Where differences turn out to be unresolvable, it becomes easier to accept them as such because your attitudes have become more positive and your acceptance of each other has improved.

If your relationship has deteriorated, it is unrealistic to expect enough trust to be present for the two of you to simply jump into this kind of communicating. The “baggage” each carries, power imbalances, and prior interactions are factored into the decision of whether to “open up” to the other. Working on your friendship first may be a better course of action, and confining active listening to issues not related to your marriage.

For more detailed information about the technique, read Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix. He is the developer of Imago Relationship Therapy, and his version of active listening is called Imago Dialogue. I am not endorsing Imago Therapy here; I am simply saying that Hendrix provides good, detailed information about doing active listening.

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[1] ^ John Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work", Three Rivers Press, 1999. P. 11.
[2] ^ Gottman. P. 11.
[3] ^ Gottman. P. 87.
[4] ^ Gottman. P. 10.
[5] ^ Gottman. P. 11.
[6] ^ Emily Nussbaum, “Inside the Love Lab: A research psychologist goes pop.” Retrieved on 9-18-12 from March, 2000.
[7] ^ Carl Rogers and FJ Roethlisberger, “Barriers and Gateways to Communication,” Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1991. Originally published in HBR Jul-Aug 1952.
[8] ^ Rogers.