When couples come in to see me they are told from the onset that marriage therapy isn’t about replaying the greatest hits of arguments past and present. For them to go from yelling at each other behind closed doors to yelling at each other in my office is not therapeutic. It’s just another episode of Jersey Shore.
So there are a few simple rules for couples in my office. No yelling, no cursing (this one gets broken a lot, even by me, but it’s still a good rule), nothing abusive and no interrupting.
Except as the couples counselor I do get to interrupt and I will use my power! It’s kind of like being the basketball coach with the whistle or the director of a play. I can stop the action to point out when the couple is in a bad feedback loop going nowhere, redirect, provide motivation and give them a chance to try out their new skills. Or when things are going well I will stop them to be sure they take note of that too.
But usually, interrupting is not a good thing. When we break into another person’s speech WE ARE NOT LISTENING! Obvious, right? And yet we do it all the time.
Check this out! We can actually interrupt without saying anything out loud! We do it by not paying attention to what the person talking to us is saying. Worse, like Mr. Guinon said, we use the time we should be listening to compose how we are going to respond instead.
You’ve heard of active listening. It’s actually harder than we ever think. Like by a LOT!
Confession time. I can’t tell you how many times as a therapist I have had to wrestle my focus back to the person in front of me telling their story and away from, “As soon as they stop talking I am going to say this very clever thing and they will be astounded by what a great therapist I am!” Yes, I am guilty of this.
If I catch it in time I give myself a metaphorical slap in the face and internally shout, “FOCUS!” Then, just to make sure I am back to where I need to be, after my client has clearly paused and is waiting for my take, I say, “Let me be sure I understand…” and I repeat what I believe I heard. Then I ask, “Did I get it? Is that everything?” That gives them a chance to say, “No, you forgot this one huge thing that makes all the difference!” or “Yes, you got it all.”
At that point I have permission to speak and hope the listener gives me the same degree of attention I try to provide to them.
Back to the couple in treatment… Often when I point out this tendency to interrupt inside our heads, the couple will laugh out loud! They’ve never noticed this bad habit before. It’s a surprise, it is so automatic and so distracting at the same time. Kind of like finding ourselves driving to work when we intended to go to the grocery store. (How does that happen anyway?)
The good thing is, when a couple cares for one another, when they want to be the best partner to each other they possibly can be, they will catch themselves silently interrupting and get back to full frontal listening with all ears, mind and heart.
Now that’s therapeutic!