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Attention Couples: Becoming a Skilled Listener and Effective Speaker

Paraphrase how your partner feels. Orbuch calls this “perception checking.” So in addition to understanding what your partner said, you want to make sure you understand how she feels.

You might think your partner is angry with you, when she’s really excited or frustrated, Orbuch explained. You can “Ask your partner, ‘did I hear that you’re really angry with me when you’re telling me about how I was behaving at the holiday party?’”

Empathize. You can follow all of this advice, but if your intention isn’t to listen to your partner, it’s not helpful, said Batshaw, who’s also leading a NYC seminar this spring on Cutting Through the Obstacles to True Intimacy. In other words, “recognize that intention is far more effective than techniques for active listening,” he said.

Also, “The couples who stay the most stuck refuse to fully engage in the other person’s perspective.” Which is hard to do, as stated above, if you’re still holding fast to your position, he said.

In general, if the couple is using listening skills, Heitler’s sample situation would sound like this:

“Yes the kitchen and dining room ended up being a mess,” the wife says.

“Yes there’s a new mess that I’m happy to help you clean up this morning,” the husband says, and adds, “The mess I was referring to actually was all the clutter that you generously cleaned up for two hours before our guests arrived. I was thinking that I would like to pitch in more with the daily clean up, so our standard mess in the house every night doesn’t fall on your shoulders and doesn’t sit around all week.”

She might say, “I love that. How about we talk and pick up every night?” And so on.

Without good listening skills, “A potentially lovely moment [can be] undermined,” Heitler said.

Become an Effective Speaker

Pick the right time to talk. “Timing is everything,” Orbuch said. While there’s no perfect time to talk, you don’t want to bring up important issues after your significant other gets home from work, is exhausted or watching TV.

Stick to one issue. Avoid engaging in what Orbuch calls “kitchen-sinking,” which is bringing up all your problems at once. This is when the speaker might go from talking about her husband being late to the movies to him not washing the dishes last week to not doing something else at their wedding.

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Focusing on one topic means “your partner can clearly respond to an issue and figure out how to change,” Orbuch noted. Kitchen-sinking, however, “boxes your partner in and they don’t know where to go.”

Validate your partner’s feelings,” Orbuch said. Instead of saying, “That was such a crazy thing that you had to say the other night,” consider saying, “I can understand why you were angry with me, and I want to discuss that with you,” she said.

Use “I” statements, Orbuch suggested. When the speaker uses the word “you,” it pushes the listener toward getting defensive and not listening. Instead of “You are so disrespectful to me,” consider saying, “I’m uncomfortable with something that happened last week,” she said.

Use X, Y, Z statements. “You do X in situation Y, I feel Z,” Orbuch said. She also added that specific statements are best. So when you tell your partner, “when we go to my mother’s house, and you don’t say hello to my mom right away, I feel very disappointed,’ he knows exactly how you feel, what the issue is and what he can do, she said.

Avoid “always” and “never,” Orbuch said. When you’re talking, don’t use phrases such as “You’re always late” or “You never help out around the house.”

Remember that effective listening and communicating are skills which require practice. As Solley said, couples therapists commonly have clients take “turns being either in the speaker or listener role, having the listener recap back to the speaker, and then switching roles.”

Consider seeking out helpful resources. For instance, Solley uses the book Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, in his practice. Heitler co-created an online program to build successful relationships called The Power of Two, which also helps couples work on their listening skills. As she said, listening is like an athletic skill. It’s not enough to have the information; you have to practice it.

Plus, as Solley added, “…it’s one thing to read what to do, another to actually do it, a third to do it well! A lot of times it takes coaching with a good, experienced couples therapist to really put into practice.”

Photo by Very Quiet, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Attention Couples: Becoming a Skilled Listener and Effective Speaker

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Attention Couples: Becoming a Skilled Listener and Effective Speaker. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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