To handle a conflict well is critical for the future of a marriage, so we need to be able to communicate clearly and safely. This requires using agreed–upon strategies and techniques that add structure and rules to our interactions, and help to keep them cool. The Speaker-Listener technique, developed by Drs. Markman and Scott, is designed primarily for dealing with sensitive issues or volatile subjects, to enable both spouses to hear clearly what each other is actually saying, so the subject is aired and discussed fully. This is essential before problem solving is attempted. The technique needs to be practised initially on easy topics so that the couple get familiar with it before they need to use it!
The person who starts the discussion is the speaker, the one who holds the floor, and it is a good idea to have some sort of object (e.g. a small book, or coaster, etc.) to represent the floor. The spouse without the floor is the listener. The Speaker presents his or her feelings and concerns, and the Listener listens and paraphrases, until the floor is passed to the Listener who then becomes the Speaker, and the roles are reversed. This can be done any number of times, until the subject is talked out; it is important however not to try problem solving at this stage. It is also important to keep to the same subject and not to become sidetracked onto other issues. The flow can be stopped for clarification of something said, or if the rules are not being adhered to. It may be useful to agree a signal beforehand, to stop things if one or other feels that things are getting out of hand.
The Speaker should talk in short enough sentences so that the listener can paraphrase; if this paraphrase is not quite accurate the Speaker should politely repeat what they said to the Listener. The issue should be presented using “I” statements, talking about their side of the issue, their feelings, emotions and concerns. The floor can be passed to the Listener at any time to hear their side of the issue.
The Listener should paraphrase what the Speaker is saying, repeating back in their own words what the Speaker conveyed, but not include their own thoughts or anything said at any other time. Explanations or examples may be requested of the Speaker, but paraphrasing should be the norm. It is essential (but may in practice be very difficult) not to comment or express opinions as a Listener, and that includes facial expressions and body language! Basically the Listener practises “active listening,” the technique taught on our course at the CMC. The Listener must try to concentrate on what the Speaker is communicating, and not start preparing their response, concentrate too on showing respect for their spouse’s point of view, even if they disagree.
The Speaker-Listener technique allows issues to be fully aired and explored, and counteracts the destructive patterns of dealing with conflict outlined in the article “Handling Conflict.” The scene is thus set for solving the problems involved with the issue. There are a number of well-known techniques for problem solving, such as “brain storming” and “force field analysis,” and these can be employed when the Speaker-Listener stage has been completed. The former, along with the ways of handling conflict and the Speaker-Listener Technique are included, with a wealth of other positive steps for preserving a lasting love in marriage, in “Fighting for Your Marriage” by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg. This is published by Josey-Bass, San Francisco, 1994