Staff Perspective: Active Listening and Military Couples

Staff Perspective: Active Listening and Military Couples

Dr. Marjorie Weinstock

Recently Dr. Jenny Phillips wrote about ways that military couples can manage expectations and communication while deployed. One of things that stood out for me was the recommendation to utilize active and open communication. As part of an ongoing project, I’ve recently been diving into the literature on therapeutic encounter skills (e.g., empathy, active listening), and I realized the relevance that active listening has when also talking about couples’ communication.

Active listening is a critical encounter skill taught to those in the helping professions. The concept of active listening has been around for over half a century and has its roots in the work of Carl Rogers. In fact, Rogers, along with Richard Farson, coined the term in 1957, defining active listening as a method requiring that the listener “get inside” the speaker in order to grasp what they’re communicating from their own point of view (Rogers & Farson, 1987). Listening in this manner helps the listener feel heard.

Active listening is more than just simple hearing. In active listening the speaker gives their full attention, respect, and empathy to the listener, thereby helping to develop a deeper level of connection between them. Topornycky and Golparian (2016) have summarized five key techniques frequently identified in the literature as essential components of active listening:

  • Paying attention, which includes things such as maintaining eye contact with the speaker, avoiding distractions, and observing the speaker’s body language;
  • Showing that you’re listening, which includes providing both verbal (e.g., “yes,” “uh huh”) and nonverbal (e.g., nodding, smiling) encouragers;
  • Providing feedback, which involves the reflection of what’s been said, clarification of the speaker’s meaning, and confirmation of the listener’s understanding;
  • Deferring judgment, meaning that the listener allows the speaker to communicate without interrupting; and
  • Responding appropriately, which means responding in an open and honest manner while treating the speaker respectfully.

Active listening has long been thought of as an important component of good communication in intimate relationships. In a recent study, Kuhn and colleagues (2018) wanted to better understand how active listening might promote closeness in couples, particularly in times of stress. They asked 365 heterosexual couples to hold two separate 8-minute conversations, during which one partner was instructed to discuss a recent stressful experience while the other was asked to respond as they normally would. Expressions of stress and listening behavior were then coded and looked at alongside self-reports of dyadic coping and relationship satisfaction. Results showed that attentive listening was significantly linked with both better dyadic coping behaviors and higher relationship satisfaction.

A lot has been written about how to teach listening skills to a variety of populations. In a paper discussing the importance of listening skills in business organizations, Rane (2011) described the “10 commandments for effective listening,” which I find to be a nice way of summarizing the important components:

  1. Stop talking – this is important, as one can’t simultaneously talk and listen
  2. Put the speaker at ease – this allows the speaker to organize their thoughts and convey them meaningfully
  3. Show a desire to listen – this includes having a positive attitude and paying attention
  4. Remove distractions – tune out distractions (e.g., turn off the television, mute cell phones)
  5. Empathize with the speaker – try to understand the speaker’s point of view
  6. Be patient – it’s important to be not only attentive, but tolerant – give the speaker time to have their say
  7. Hold your temper – angry minds can’t communicate
  8. Refrain from argumentation & criticism – don’t verbally attack the speaker, even if you disagree with them
  9. Ask questions – asking appropriate questions at the right time facilitates understanding
  10. Maintain eye contact – this is an essential prerequisite for effective listening, as not looking at the speaker means you’re not interested in what they’re saying

While not developed specifically with couples in mind, I think this list would make a great jumping off point for a discussion on active listening with military couples.

Kuhn, R., Bradbury, T. N., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bodenmann, G. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 762-772.
Rane, D. B. (2011). Good listening skills make efficient business sense. The IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 5(4). 43-51.
Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1987). Active listening. In R. G. Newman, M. A. Danziger, & M. Cohen (Eds.), Communicating in Business Today. D. C. Heath. (Original work published in 1957).
Topornycky J., & Golparian, S. (2016). Balancing openness and interpretation in active listening. Collected Essays on Learning & Teaching, 9, 175-184.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D. , is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.