More than three years ago, when I was in the midst of saving my marriage, I read about the “speaker listener technique” and about “I statements.” The proponents of these techniques recommended that my husband and I practice them by role playing.
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The role playing just felt so contrived and silly. And despite how many problems we had back then, I couldn’t think of any of them when it came time for role playing. My mind would go blank.
So what would end up happening is this. One of us would get really ticked off about something. We’d launch into the usual dysfunctional attempt at communication. We’d start shouting. Then about three quarters of the way through an argument, I’d think, “What are those techniques I should be practicing right now?”
I knew that good communication was a skill. I knew I needed to practice it when I wasn’t angry if I ever hoped to be able to do it correctly when I was angry. But I also knew role playing was not going to work for us. So I did this. I started practicing on strangers and acquaintances. At every opportunity, I worked on the following:
1. Assertively but not annoyingly speaking up for myself. I did this by periodically making special requests. For instance, I might ask a waiter to substitute steamed broccoli for the fries that were supposed to come with a meal. I might call my bank and ask them to waive a fee. I might ask an airline gate agent to reroute me. Or I might suggest to a friend that I would really prefer to eat at a different restaurant than the one she suggested.
2. Listening with my full attention. I would try my best to do this at social gatherings, at coffee shops, at airports and in other locations where people like to talk to pass the time. I would see just how deeply I could get to know someone. I would work on reflexive listening and try my best not to jump in and interrupt.
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3. Being polite. I practiced saying “please” and “thank you” as often as possible. I practiced complimenting people as often as possible, too. This got me in the habit of giving my husband Atta Boys, thanking him and complimenting him—which helped to warm up our marriage.
You might be wondering if my husband did any practicing. I don’t believe he did. (Perhaps I should ask him about that, now, shouldn’t I?) Here’s one more thing I’ve learned about communication: only one of you really needs to know how to do it. Sure, in an ideal world, both of you would be great communicators and listeners. Still, if one of you learns and practices the techniques, it’s my experience that the other will follow your lead.