Dr. Phil's Six Rules of Talking and Listening - Oprah Magazine March 2003

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O The Oprah Magazine March 2003

o tell it like it is

Dr. Phil's Six Rules of Talking and listening True or false: When you talk to other people, it's best to block your ears, dominate the conversation, and if they ask you what's wrong, chirp "Nothing." True! - If you want to live alone for the rest of your life. If not, PHILLIP C. McGRAW, PHD, has a conversation repair kit for you.

WHEN IT COMES TO RELATING TO each other, communication is perhaps the most overused term in our vocabulary. The problem is that most people don't really know what good communication is. But talking and listening are essential tools for learning about your partner's feelings, making your feelings known, and solving problems that arise within a relationship. As the saying goes, "It's better to light one candle than curse the darkness," so here's my attempt to shed some light on the subject and help you get better at the art of exchange.

RULE #1: INSIST ON EMOTIONAL INTEGRITY You gotta tell it like it is! You must insist that everything you say, imply or insinuate is accurate, and if your partner challenges you on those messages, you must step up and own them. Mean what you say and say what you mean. You don't have to tell people everything you think or feel. But you do have to be accurate when you choose to disclose.

Suppose you're upset. When your partner senses that and asks, "Is something bothering you?" emotional integrity requires that you won't deny the message you're sending verbally or otherwise by saying, "Nothing is wrong; I'm fine." You may not be ready to discuss it, so the accurate answer might be, "I don't want to tell you right now; I'm just not ready to talk about it."

A lot of couples flagrantly violate this principle. Then they say, "We have trouble communicating." Of course they do- they both lie like dogs! And while we're on the subject: A material omission-leaving out something of crucial importance - is as much a lie as any actual misstatement.

RULE #2: BE A TWO-WAY, NOT A ONE-WAY, COMMUNICATOR A one-way communicator talks but never listens and pays no attention to whether the listener appears to be "getting it." You know what I mean. For her it's all about the telling, as in, 'All right. What I want you to do is go out there, get this work done, give these people this message, put those kids to bed, and come back in here."

If that's how you communicate, all you know is what you've said, and you haven't got a clue about what the other person heard. Result: conflict.

But as soon as a one-way communicator asks for feedback, look what happens:

She: "Here's what I'd like you to do: A, B, C, and D. Does that sound okay to you?"

He: "Well, L, Q, R, and P don't make a whole lot of sense to me."

No wonder they're not getting along - they're not even talking about the same thing! When she checks to make sure that he has received the message, she uncovers a communication glitch. By soliciting feedback - by giving just as much weight to what is heard as to what is said - you put a spotlight on the issues the two of you, together, need to clarify.

RULE #3: ESTABLISH A MOTIVE Whether you're talking or listening, you need to be clear about why something's being said. Motive and message are important. If you've got a husband who says, "You're like the Spanish Inquisition. You're always asking me these questions and bugging me all the time," you need to look at what's behind those words. Is he trying to make you feel guilty because there's something he doesn't want you to see? Or are you trying to control too much of his life because you are insecure? In answering those questions, you'll figure out the motive and be able to move on from there.

RULE#4: CHECK IN WITH EACH OTHER You and your partner must agree to test each other's messages and respond honestly. No more b.s. Ask your partner, "Is what you're saying really the way you feel? Is that true?" Remember that when you ask the question, you have to be ready to hear the true answer. And you've got to be willing to take the same test yourself. If asked, "So you're really okay?" have the guts to say, "No, I'm not," when you're really not. Ask your partner the questions that will confirm his or her feelings.

RULE #5: BE AN ACTIVE LISTENER Most people are passive listeners. If you intend to become an active listener, you'll need to master two important tools. A famous psychologist named Carl Rogers called them Reflection of Content and Reflection of Feeling. I don't agree with a lot of what Rogers taught, but he hit the nail on the head with this one.

Reflecting a speaker's content means that you listen to the person; then you give him or her feedback that makes it clear you're receiving the factual message - but as you'll see, it ain't all about the facts. Here's an example of someone's getting the information but missing the message:

A: "Sorry I'm late. As I was leaving the house, my dog ran into the street and was hit by a car."

B: (reflecting the content): "So your dog got hit by a car?"

A: "Right."

B: "Is he dead?"

A: "Uh-huh."

B: "So what did you do with the dog's body?"

Person B establishes that Person A has been heard, which addresses a fundamental need for A. But B has clearly missed the point. To be an active listener in an emotionally relevant situation, B has to do more than just reflect the factual information that A has conveyed. Reflection of feeling tells your partner not just that he's been heard but that you have "plugged into" his life and experienced it in some way, which is essential to his satisfaction. Reflection of feeling sounds like this:

A: "Sorry I'm late. As I was leaving the house, my dog ran into the street and got hit by a car."

B: (reflecting the feeling: "Oh, my gosh - you must feel terrible."

A: "Well, I do. We'd had the dog for 12 years, and my kids really loved him."

B: "I'm sure they must be so upset; I'm sorry you're going through this."

Being able to reflect the feeling, not just the content, is essential to the success of your communication.

RULE #6: EVALUATE YOUR FILTERS When you and I engage in conversation, I can't control how well you communicate; I can only control how well I receive what you're telling me. I can go on the alert to things that may distort the messages you're sending me - I call them filters. To be a good listener, you've got to know what your filters are. Maybe you're coming into a given conversation with an agenda. Maybe you're judging the speaker and don't trust him at all. Maybe you're angry. Any one of these psychological filters can dramatically distort what you hear.

Filters cause you to decide things ahead of time. You may have prejudged your partner and decided that he's a hound dog, that he doesn't love you anymore. Result: No matter what he says to you, you're going to distort it to conform to what you're already thinking, feeling, and believing.

Take an inventory of your filters. If you're not aware of them, you can defeat the best communicator in the world because you'll distort the message, regardless of how well it was sent.

Philip C. McGraw, PhD, is the president of Courtroom Sciences a litigation firm in Texas. He hosts a daily television show, Dr. Phil, and his most recent book is Self Matters (Simon & Schuster). Have a question for Dr Phil? Visit oprah.com and click on Contribute to O, The Oprah Magazine.

Talking Cures: A Crib Sheet CHOOSE THE RIGHT COMMUNICATION ENVIRONMENT. When the subject matter is weighty and emotionally charged, find a place where you won't be distracted and can devote yourself entirely to talking and listening.

PICK YOUR BATTLES. People's willingness to listen goes down dramatically after the first criticism in a conversation. With each successive criticism, their defensiveness goes up and their receptivity goes down. By the third criticism, you might as well be talking to yourself. Don't wander into saying, "And it also really bothers me thatů" If there's something you need to address, stick with that point and deal with other issues another time.

BEWARE OF UNDOING. People will ratchet up their courage to say something extremely important, then sabotage their own communication by waffling. "You know, I think you're really mean and hurtful...and I know I probably bring that out in you." No; don't apologize for your real feelings. Deliver your message. Own it. Then stay with it.

MAKE USE OF "MINIMAL ENCOURAGERS" TO LET YOUR PARTNER KNOW HE IS BEING HEARD. Minimal encouragers are the very least you must express to make sure the speaker knows you're listening to him. They are very simple: Make eye contact, nod your head, say things like, "Uh-huh; right; gotcha." What that says to the other person is "All right. I hear you. Keep going." Let him know that he's not speaking Greek to you.

DON'T DISGUISE YOUR FEELINGS IN A QUESTION. "Are you going out with your buddies this Friday - again?" Really, what you're trying to say is that you want to spend more time with your partner. When your message is true, the response will be, too.

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