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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Technique Toolbox - Listening Cycle Mat

Listening Cycle Mat Technique

Credited to: Sherod Miller, Couple Communication

For use with: Mainly couples, although applicable to any two people in need of learning better communication skills

What you will need:

A couple (duh!)
Listening Cycle Communication Mat, either cloth or traced on paper

What you do:

I don't follow the exact directions from Couple Communication I. You can check it out on the website. First, I explain the Listening Cycle as it is displayed on the mat. (I actually put the mat down on the floor in front of them.) I explain that the person talking really has the easy job. It's the person listening who has their work cut out for them.

I usually ask the couple to pick a minor spat they had during the past week, as it's always nice to start out light. (If the couple is nervous or uneasy, then I'll sometimes have them discuss a big decision that needs to be made or something with a more positive spin.) Using the substance of that spat, I take the couple through the cycle below. 

The first step is to Attend. This is tracking, nodding, and listening while the other speaks. This is not trying to think of a response or a comeback or of how to refute the person speaking, because once your brain goes to that place, you are no longer attending to what the person is saying. You want to be mentally present when the other is talking.

Afterward the person listening then has to Acknowledge the other's experience. This is an important step, as the person talking wants to know that the listener understands and validates their experiences and feelings, even if the person listening doesn't agree with the talker. Oftentimes I have to jump in and mediate this skill for the listener, because defenses spring up and absolutely shut down 2-way communication. They listener might say, "Well, even though I never intended for you to take what I said that way, it sounds like you had a hard time with it." See how people will slip in their defensive statements? Tricky!

If the talker feels that the listener understands where they are coming from, then the listener is to Invite More Information. This is important, because sometimes the talker's brain gets jumbled in the midst of trying to communicate. When the listener gives them feedback by way of acknowledging them, little sparks will often go off in the talker's brain, and they'll think, "Oh, I should have said this or that too!" Inviting more information gives them a chance to do that.

Then the listener has the important task of Summarizing. This can be difficult, especially if the talker really went over a lot of caveats or chased a few rabbits (but the therapist should have helped with that). But the listener should be able to clearly condense the gist of what was said in a way that makes the talker feel heard and understood.

Once this has happened, and the feelings are all laid bare on the mat and between the couple, then--AND ONLY THEN--is the listener allowed to Ask a Question. The question has to be open-ended, not a yes/no question. The listener will also try to insert defensive comments during this time, and the therapist should interject and help them find alternatives.

The cycle circles back on itself as many times as needed to work through the issue.


Couples have a hard time fighting. Because of the natural defenses we have to protect ourselves and our interests, listening to someone who disagrees with something we've said or done can be difficult. When couples don't have the necessary listening skills to work through an argument, things never get completely ironed out. One person will never feel heard and always stomped on and the other won't realize they've even done it.

I like to get the couple to do this cycle for me several times in session, where I can monitor how they handle themselves and whether they have the skills down before assigning them homework to try using the cycle at home.

This technique is a favorite of mine, and I'm forever grateful that I got to be on the receiving end when my husband and I went through premarital counseling. (Thanks, Kathy!)

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Wordle: signature


Anonymous said...

Where can I buy a mat or get a detailed image?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

hi anonymous -

you can get a good look at the image here:

you can buy a mat here:

hope that helps!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

hmm...last link didn't work. try the actual site where i got mine:

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.