Perhaps the most important application for your listening skills is when you communicate with your partner. A process called reciprocal communication provides a structure in which you can really hear each other. Here's how it works. When you're discussing a topic that is a conflict area for you, take turns being the speaker and the listener, switching places after five minutes.

When you're the speaker:

- Explain your point of view briefly and succinctly
- Avoid blaming and name-calling. Don't accuse and don't focus on your partner's failings.
- Talk in terms of yourself and your experience. Focus on what you want and what you feel.

When you're the listener:

- Give your full attention so that you can really understand your partner's feelings, opinions, and needs.
- Don't disagree, argue or correct anything your partner says.
- You can ask questions to clarify an issue but not to debate and make counterpoints.

After the speaker describes his or her side of the issue for five minutes, the listener summarizes, using paraphrasing skills. If the listener's summary leaves out something important, or the listener has misunderstood, the speaker can clarify and explain again until he or she feels completely heard.

When the first round of expressing and listening is over, it's time to switch places. The speaker becomes the listener, and vice versa. Follow exactly the same instructions until the second speaker feels thoroughly understood.

Reciprocal communication can be used with practically any problematic issue. Its main virtues are that it slows down communication so that conflicts are less likely to escalate and it promotes clarity about the needs and feelings of each partner.


Excerpt from MESSAGES: The Communications Skills Book, 3rd ed. (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Matthew Mckay, Ph.D., is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA.

Martha Davis, Ph.D., was a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara, CA for more than thirty years prior to her retirement.

Patrick Fanning is a professional writer in the mental health field and coauthor of many psychology and communications titles.