How to Use the Speaker Listener Technique to Improve Your Communication

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Communication enables us to express our thoughts and feelings and ask for what we need. That’s why it is essential for us to develop effective language and listening skills starting from infancy. However, day-to-day conversations are only effective if the speaker and listener are in tune with each other, also called the speaker-listener technique (SLT).

SLT is designed to promote peaceful, meaningful interactions, but not everyone knows about it or what rules to follow. Lucky for you, the entire post is dedicated to familiarizing you with the rules which can promote effective communication in your personal and professional life. I also touched on how certain communication styles can help or hurt your efforts to interact effectively using the technique.

What Is the Speaker Listener Technique?

Scenario: Have you ever witnessed two people in a conversation talking over each other? It’s difficult to tell who’s saying what. Neither of them is listening to the other. To be quite frank, it appears as if they’re arguing.

A scenario like this is anything but effective communication. The reason seems obvious. We cannot speak and actively listen at the same time. In the end, both individuals leave feeling frustrated, usually because the issue remains unsolved.

The speaker-listener technique was developed to prevent conversations from “going south.” Put simply, SLT refers to taking turns being the “speaker” and then the “listener” during dialogue. According to the Encyclopedia of Couples and Family Therapy, the technique is a “structured model of communication used to help couples have constructive discussions about relationship problems, disagreements, and sensitive issues.”

Clinicians continue to use the strategy in relationship therapy to help couples improve their discussions and outcomes. Notwithstanding, it can be applied to any scenario where two or more people are exchanging ideas.

Importance of Effective and Open Communication in Relationships

The ability to communicate effectively is a big part of having emotional intelligence. Effective communication involves taking turns speaking and listening to each other.

Taking the time to listen (active listening) and thinking before speaking helps establish a healthy rapport. You and your partner are able to tackle relationship issues with an open mind and in a loving and supportive way, thereby reducing conflicts.

Similarly, open communication allows couples to speak without fear of judgment or ridicule. Being able to mutually share ideas and receive validation and support helps strengthen the bond.

Steps for Using the Speaker Listener Technique

Experts say the communication strategy not only fosters peaceful discussions but can be quite effective during conflict. While both you and your partner can follow the SLT rules at any time, you may find it particularly helpful when discussing sensitive issues or the conversation gets too heated.

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SLT is designed to promote peaceful, meaningful interactions, but not everyone knows about it or what rules to follow.

SLT encourages balanced conversations, where you provide support and validation instead of casting blame or criticizing each other. Speaking in a way that is clear and safe also prevents the conversation from escalating into an argument.

You and your spouse can explore a more structured style of communication by following these three steps of the speaker-listener technique.

STEP 1. Work together – Take the “us versus the issue” approach instead of attacking each other, trying to win, or trying to be right.

STEP 2. Promote psychological safety – Be open to listening, understanding, and validating each other’s feelings and thoughts, respecting each other’s opinions, and agreeing to disagree without arguing.

STEP 3. Follow the rules – the speak-listener rules of conversation.

Next, go over the rules that apply to both of you, when you’re the speaker, and when you’re the listener.

Rules for Both the Speaker and Listener

STEP 1. The speaker has the floor

At this time, your role is to be the listener. Wait your turn to be the speaker while observing the rules below for the listener. Use an object, also known as a “talking stick” to show who the speaker is or who has the “floor.” It could be a book or a pen. Whoever has the talking stick is the speaker and should be the only one on the floor.

STEP 2. Share the floor

Take turns letting each other be the speaker throughout the conversation. Practice awareness and use your own sense of judgment to determine when to give your partner the floor.

STEP 3. Do not problem-solve

Do your best to focus on and understand what’s being said instead of brainstorming solutions. Not every conversation will surround a problem that needs solving. Sometimes your partner only wants to bring your attention to something or seek your opinion.

Rules for the Speaker

Follow these simple rules when you have the floor.

STEP 1. Speak for yourself

Express your thoughts, feelings, and concerns clearly, concisely, and in an assertive manner. Don’t talk about your perceptions of the listener’s point of view. If you’re following up on something the other individual said, do not assume what was said and carry on about it.

Speak of your feelings, thoughts, or concerns using “I” statements. For example, “I feel dismissed whenever you walk away without answering my question.” Saying something like, “You really pissed me off earlier when you didn’t answer my question,” is an aggressive approach that can ignite an argument.

STEP 2. Don’t go on and on

There’s no need to say everything you wish to say in one breath. Remember you’re taking turns speaking, listening, and responding. Say what’s on your mind in small doses and allow the listener to digest it. Stick to the issue. As you speak, pause to allow the listener to grasp what’s being said.

STEP 3. Stop and let the listener paraphrase

After you’ve spoken on one idea for a short while, pause and allow your partner to paraphrase what you just said. Politely restate what you said or clear up any misunderstanding on your partner’s part.

Don’t ask, “Are you really listening to me?” or say anything mean, such as, “Am I speaking English, or is it that you have poor comprehension skills?” Statements such as those are considered “violent language” according to the book, Non-Violent Communication, by author Marshall B. Rosenberg. The book focuses on ways to resolve differences peacefully as explained in this YouTube video.

Rules for the Listener

Apply these rules once your role switches to Listener.

STEP 1. Paraphrase what you heard

Engage in active listening while the speaker has the spotlight. Repeat back to the speaker what you heard in your own words. Consider language such as, “What I hear you saying is… [fill in].” OR “If I understand you right,[fill in].”

Paraphrasing accurately shows that you’re following the conversation. The speaker should confirm if you understand what they’re saying. If you still don’t get the main idea, ask the speaker to clarify. They should politely explain in a way that helps you to better understand.

Save any questions you may have for when you’re back on the floor.

STEP 2. Focus on the Speaker’s message. Don’t rebut

Many of us have a natural tendency to rebut what someone is saying in an effort to defend ourselves, especially if we feel slighted. The speaker-listener technique requires you to put that habit aside. Breathe and remain calm.

Your role is to listen and try to understand what your partner is saying. You’ll have time to voice your opinions about the subject or clear up any misunderstanding when you’re back to being the speaker.

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The speaker listener technique was developed to prevent conversations from “going south.”

While your partner is speaking, do not use non-verbal communication to show anger or frustration, e.g., rolling your eyes or making a fist. Besides, these actions interrupt and distract the speaker.

Reframe anything that comes across as negative and respond in a gentle, friendly, and respectful tone when it’s your turn to speak. Take time to acknowledge, own up to unhealthy behaviors, (being accountable), or apologize.

Remember to show empathy and compassion by saying things like:

  • “What you’re saying is totally valid.”
  • “‘I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”
  • “I shouldn’t have acted like that.”
  • “I really do understand why you reacted that way.”
  • “What can I do to make this better?”

Why the Speaker Listener Technique Is So Effective

SLT is a structured communication strategy and can be used by anyone, regardless of your current communication style. According to experts, there are four primary styles; assertive, passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive. You may also come across discussions about the submissive or manipulative communication styles used by psychopaths and narcissists.

The assertive style is believed to be the most effective form of communication. Using “I” statements to voice your concerns and needs is an example of assertive communication. It’s also the only type recommended when using the speaker listener technique. For example, “I feel frustrated when you show up late for our dates.”

In addition to promoting assertive communication, here are other reasons why the technique is so effective:

  • Allows people to alternate roles as speaker and listener
  • Adds structure to your conversations (keeps the conversation on course and relevant and prevents interruptions)
  • Counteracts the unhealthy (ineffective) styles of communication
  • Can be introduced during a conflict to tone things down
  • Teaches you to engage in active listening (which makes your partner feel heard and understood)
  • Gives you a chance to think before you speak
  • Helps everyone keep their emotions in check and prevents confrontations
  • Helps you let go of the tendency to problem-solve or abruptly end the conversation
  • Leaves you feeling connected as you work together to find solutions
  • Paraphrasing and clarifying eliminate wrongful assumptions
  • Provides a healthy platform for couples to state their needs
  • Promotes emotionally safe, trusting, and mutually respectful relationships
  • Overall, improves the conversation experience for everyone involved

Can Your Communication Style Affect the Speaker Listener Technique?

Yes. Imagine how the conversation would go if you or your partner engaged in passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communication.

Passive style

People who use this form of communication speak indirectly and avoid making eye contact. They are unable to, cannot, or choose not to say what’s on their mind or ask for what they need. They expect and hope that you read their minds and understand how they truly feel. They may say something like, “If you were paying attention, you’d know I was upset.” Confrontations and conflicts usually arise when their unspoken needs aren’t met.

Aggressive style

Those with an aggressive style of communication are often loud, controlling, and demanding. They are known for launching verbal attacks, criticizing, and demeaning others. They are not good listeners since they’re usually caught up in speaking intensely and overwhelming the listener. “I don’t care what you have to say” is an example of an aggressive statement.

Passive-aggressive style

Seemingly quiet and easy-going on the outside, but angry and resentful on the inside are common descriptions of a passive-aggressive personality. Their feelings and body language or facial expressions don’t match. They’ll say, “I’m not mad,” although they’re visibly upset and are raging deep down inside. This makes it difficult to have open and honest conversations.

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Effective communication involves taking turns speaking and listening to each other.

Passive-aggressive people also act out subtly to show their displeasure, shut down, give you the silent treatment, or make sarcastic remarks. For example, “Thanks a lot for forgetting my birthday.”

Which of these communication styles do you have? Passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive styles do not represent effective communication and make good for high-conflict or toxic relationships. There’s plenty of talking over each other, defensiveness, and, stonewalling. Luckily, we can train ourselves to become assertive speakers and empathic listeners and enjoy healthier exchanges with others in our personal and professional lives.

Final Thoughts on Using the Speaker Listener Technique to Improve Communication

Mastering the speaker listener skill is one of the best things you can do for yourself – and your relationship or marriage. Relationship therapists know SLT works, which is why they use it to help couples improve their communication skills.

Of course, it’s going to take time to develop the habit of using the technique. It will eventually become second nature and you won’t necessarily need a talking stick to identify roles when conversing with your others. And you can continue on your journey towards better communication by reading our article on the rules for Fighting in a Relationship: 11 Tips to Fight Fairly and Feel Close Again.

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