Communication has several key aspects which are all the more pertinent to people whose lives are entwined with each other and who need to maintain high levels of understanding.

First of all, when speaking there are certain principles that come into play.

  1. Words have different meanings to different people and what we intend to say is not always what comes across.
  2. Messages are often ‘coded’ so that the true intent is something that is inferred rather than spoken openly.
  3. People do not always get to the point and may altogether omit or avoid what they really want to say.
  4. The complexity of one’s inner world is not always easy to express. Emotions, thoughts, reactions and so on are not always easy to put into words.

As a listener, there are two specific phenomena to keep in mind.

  1. People may be distracted from what is being said and consequently may not fully comprehend nor remember what was said.
  2. People can easily distort what they hear, through their different interpretations of words and through other emotional and psychological factors.

Listening is a vital aspect of communication all on its own. It is said that on average 70 per cent of our waking hours are spent in communication with others. Of that time, 45 per cent is spent listening. Tests show that most people only recall half of what heard even when they thought they were listening carefully. Eight hours after a conversation, only 25 per cent of what was said is remembered (Bolton, 2003).

We can see the causes of so many arguments and disagreements in these aspects of communication and their associated phenomena. It may be worthwhile as a counselling exercise to have clients go through these points and relate examples of how minor disagreements have occurred due to these aspects of communication not being in place. A counsellor should make sure in doing this that the cause of the disagreement is successfully isolated to the satisfaction and relief of both parties.

A key part of listening is attending, giving a person one’s whole attention. Sometimes this is referred to as “listening with your whole body”. It includes eye contact and facing the person who is speaking. It involves ceasing what one is doing (where possible) so that one can focus on the speaker, and it also needs that there be no or minimal distraction or that distractions are catered for as much as possible.

Body posture should be open and receptive, as should facial expressions. It may not always be possible, but one could encourage clients to devote some time in each day when they give each other their undivided attention. This is especially necessary when something needs to be clarified or when tensions may be mounting up.

Note in all of this the potential for barriers to communication to arise when children are present, as they can be major distractions. Again, there is benefit in raising these issues so that the couple may be more prepared for what lies ahead.

Below are two client resources which can be used to assist couples in improving their communication skills:

Client Resource #1 — Attending Drill

Have the couple sit facing each other in reasonably straight backed chairs. Tell them they are not allowed to talk, look away, or make gestures at each other, only that they should sit and maintain eye contact and ‘be there’ until they are told to stop.

One or both of them may go through varying degrees of discomfort doing this. The solution is to keep doing the exercise. It is not unusual for dormant emotions to be stirred by this exercise. In that sense it has a cathartic value, provided one continues with it. In time everything will settle down and the intrinsic discomfort will have disappeared.

Once there is a genuine ability to attend, a person’s other communication skills will improve considerably. This is an excellent exercise for a couple. It can lead to them being much more stable and confident in being able to communicate to each other.

Client Resource #2 — Listening Drill

Once people have better attending skills, they can build up their ability to listen and interact with others. A counsellor can begin to address any communication deficiencies they observe in their clients by having them practice drills of this kind.

  1. Have Person A take up an attentive listening position.
  2. Have Person B talk about something they are interested in or concerned about.

A listens, uses minimal encouragers (“Go on”, “Yes…” etc) and open questions (“How do you feel about that?”? etc). When B has finished, A thinks over what was said, how it was said, body posture and facial expressions and thinks about how they feel about what was said. Person A sums up what was said by Person B “I gather that happened and that you are…” or something along those lines. Ask B how this felt.

Turn this around a few times. Let each of them practice listening to the other with good attending skills, then have them paraphrase what was said. The clients should keep in mind that attentive listening is a key. When this is done well, the rest of the skills should fall into place naturally.

If the person who is listening and paraphrasing is sounding a little formal, it may help to coach them towards simply clarifying what was said, with statements like “Did I hear you correctly” and “Is there anything more to that?” They may find that once the other person has fully conveyed what they want to say, it is easier to acknowledge them. And an acknowledgement is mainly letting the other person know that they have been heard and understood, there is not really any need to elaborate on that.