While most of us are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, there are other activities in which we cannot engage simultaneously. Two activities which fall into the latter category are listening and speaking.
In everyday, social conversation, we usually listen and speak back and forth like a ping pong game. I speak; then you speak; then I speak, again.
When husbands and wives talk with each other, however, the emotions can run higher than in social conversation. As a result, it becomes much more difficult for spouses to both listen and speak effectively during the same conversation.
If people can easily switch the roles of speaker and listener many times in social conversation, why is it so difficult to do the same in marital communication? The answer is that when conversation heats up between husband and wife, the listener is not actually concentrating on what the speaker is saying. The listener is really just mentally preparing what to say next.
Shifra and Brian walked into my office for the first time with a striking air of sophistication. They were both tall, well dressed, good looking and extremely confident.
Shifra began by describing, in great detail, how she felt overly criticized by her mother-in-law. "Unfortunately, she's a widow now, and I try to be understanding. But when she speaks disparagingly about me to my own children, then I just cannot put up with that."
Brian squirmed in his seat, trying to control himself. After a few minutes he cut in. "Am I going to have a chance too? Or are you planning to speak for the entire session?"
Shifra begged to finish what she wanted to bring out and then reluctantly turned the floor over to her husband.
"I know my mother can get pretty nasty," Brian confessed to his wife. "But she is an older woman who is not about to change at this point in her life. You simply have to learn to ignore her."
"Ignore her?" Shifra shot back. "How can I ignore her when she is inciting my own children against me?"
It was clear that both Brian and Shifra were not listening to each other. They each desperately wanted to be heard. And as the session progressed, they each began to raise their voices and interrupt each other.
"Is this the way you two speak at home about this issue?" I asked as soon as I could get a word in edgewise.
"We don't usually speak about this at home," Shifra acknowledged. "I supposed that's why we came to see you."
I then pointed out the obvious to Brian and Shifra: Neither one was listening to the other. Each one had a legitimate right, as well as a pressing need, to be heard. But they simply could not both be heard at the same time.
THE GRATIFICATION OF BEING HEARD
A few years ago, I was observing a pair of orangutans at the zoo. One was lying on its side, completely relaxed and luxuriating in the warmth of the midday sun. The second one was sitting alongside, gently scratching the back of his or her mate, and picking out lice. The orangutan being gratified appeared so thoroughly content that a small crowd of visitors had stopped to gaze at the proceedings.
Even in the animal kingdom, I thought to myself, only one spouse can be effectively gratified at a time. Surely they can, and most probably do, take turns scratching each other's back. But when you have to scratch, you cannot expect to be scratched, as well.
There is, perhaps, no personal indulgence in life that is more deeply gratifying than to speak your heart out to someone who is fully attentive. It is understandable, therefore, why people are willing to spend so much time, effort and money to have the undivided attention of a total stranger for a forty-five minute therapy session every week.
In order for one spouse to be fully gratified by being heard, however, it is necessary for the other spouse not to defend or contradict, in any way. If the other spouse does rebut, challenge or answer back, then no one will be gratified, at all.
Suppose you are upset about something. What should you do? You should tell your spouse that you would like to be the speaker. If your spouse agrees to listen, then you can share your feelings. But if your spouse is not ready to listen, for any reason, then you should not attempt to speak. If you do try to speak, anyway, you simply will not be properly heard.
Learning to take turns is one of the most difficult hurdles for couples in conflict to overcome on their path toward mutual respect and affection. The urge to interject your point of view or simply, "to set the record straight," is enormous.
"That's not what happened," "I never said that," "You do the same thing to me," are just some of the ways spouses abandon the listener role and jump back into the speaker role, out of turn.
As I point out to those who fail to stick to their role as listener, "If you are not a good listener, then you cannot expect your spouse to listen to you when it is your turn to speak."
Some people ask, "Is there never a time when the listener can correct the speaker?"
I then explain that my office is not a courtroom. No one is on trial. Your responsibility as a listener is to understand your spouse's feelings. Your job is not to pass judgment on the veracity of what your spouse is saying or to defend yourself.
BREAKING THE RULES
What should one do, I am often asked, if one is speaking and his or her spouse breaks the rules and tries to stick in his or her "two cents"?
When that happens, I recommend the following standard strategy. Do not try to out-shout your spouse. That is never helpful. Do not give up and walk away, either. That is almost as destructive as raising your voice. Instead, try to reestablish your respective roles. It sounds something like this:
"I had just asked you if you would be willing to listen to me and you said, 'Yes.' I was in the middle of telling you what was on my mind and then you started to give your point of view. If you cannot listen to me now, then please tell me and I will speak with you later. But if you still feel that you can listen to me now, then please hold back your own opinions until you are the speaker. I will be ready and willing to listen to you at that time."
Once a conversation has begun, trying to switch roles will not be effective for a number of reasons.
Firstly, by trying to speak right after listening, you won't be fully concentrating on what your spouse was saying. You will be listening with only one ear while you mentally prepare your retort.
Secondly, even if you could switch gears by listening without compromise and then speaking, your spouse will just not feel heard. The speaker needs to feel that his or her words are sinking in and having at least some impact.
WHEN TO TAKE TURNS
If you try to adopt the policy of taking turns with your spouse, that does not mean that every single conversation must have only one speaker and one listener. You do not need to take turns for all conversations at home. The strategy of taking turns should be reserved for those discussions of topics about which there is substantial disagreement and/or strong negative feelings. When you are upset, annoyed, hurt, angry or all of the above, it is a good idea to implement the procedure of taking turns.
If you are irritated about something, do not try to engage in a normal two-way conversation. If you do, the dialogue will most likely deteriorate into a normal two-way argument.
Following the policy of taking turns for all discussions of sensitive or controversial subjects will not be easy, especially if you have been married for twenty or thirty years and have not been taking turns. But the effort in switching to this new strategy will be well worth your while.
THE BENEFITS OF TAKING TURNS
Without having to formulate a rebuttal, the listener can be more tuned in and empathetic to the feelings his or her spouse is trying to communicate.
Another benefit of taking turns is that it gives the speaker the feeling of really being heard, sometimes for the first time in the marriage! This goes a long way toward reducing the tensions at home which are often exacerbated by the sense couples have of not being understood by each other.
Last, but certainly not least, the system of taking turns forces spouses to wait before they are "allowed" to respond to each other. By waiting until it is your turn to speak, much of the tension gets defused even before you begin to counter whatever your spouse was saying. It also gives your spouse a chance to cool off after being the speaker so that he or she is ready to listen.
It took a few weeks for Brian and Shifra to get the hang of taking turns with each other, both in my office as well as at home. They were so used to interrupting each other that they had to make a concerted effort to hold themselves back.
Once they started taking turns with each other and really hearing each other out, they were surprised how quickly they understood each other, how easily they let go of their old grievances against each other, and how soon they were able to resolve conflicts, reach compromises and, finally, resume the state of comfortable compatibility which they had thought was all but lost from their marriage.
Excerpted with permission of the author and publisher from, "Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You," by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll/Mesorah Publications, 2003)