Relationship Institute Australasia

Counselling and
Professional Training.

8 February 2018

Categories: For therapists


Active listening in couples therapy has generally been proposed as a formulaic approach to having couples talk about issues. It generally takes the form of the speaker saying an I statement that includes a description of a behavior or situation, a feeling they have about the behavior or situation and a request. For example it might be “When you don’t clean up the kitchen after you have eaten I feel angry, I want you to clean up the mess you make.”

The listener is then encouraged to repeat this back so it sounds something like “I hear you saying when I leave mess in the kitchen after I have eaten you feel angry and you want me to clean the kitchen up.”

While on the surface this seems like a reasonable statement of fact and makes logical sense, it can also be heard as criticism and unreasonable by the listener who, when it is their turn to be speaker might say something like, “Well, I only leave things out because I’m not sure if you want to eat too”; or, “I usually put things away, sometimes you just want it done faster than I do”; or some version of this kind of defensiveness.  It also does not help the listener to understand why having the kitchen cleaned up is so important for the speaker that they are willing to ‘fight’ for it.

The Rapoport Intervention is more like a macro conversation than the general active listening exercise allows for.  In using the Rapoport intervention the therapist frames up the issue in broader terms, such as, “Let’s talk about your viewpoint on cleanliness in the kitchen”.  Then the speaker is given up to 10 minutes to ‘hold the floor’, without interruption to explore their viewpoint, feelings and needs while the listener takes notes so that at the end of the 10 minutes they can clearly summarise back the speakers viewpoint and will as their feelings and needs.  It might sound something like this:

Speaker:  We only have a small kitchen and with 4 people living in the house who all go in and out throughout the day making food and coffee and everything it’s important that things are cleaned up as we go otherwise the kitchen ends up like a pigsty and then no-one wants to be the one who cleans it up.  In fact often it seems like it is all left to me to clean up everyone else’s mess.

Therapist to Listener:  Can you ask him/her how they feel about that?

Listener:  How do you feel about that?

Speaker:  Well I guess I often feel taken for granted, like this is my job, my role in the family.  All I’m good for is to clean up after everyone and that makes me angry, because I feel used and unimportant.

Therapist to Listener:   Can you ask him/her what they need to feel better about this?

Listener:  So what do you need

Speaker:  I need the kitchen cleaned up. I need to feel like everyone is taking responsibility for their own mess.

Therapist:  And if this happens how will you feel?

Speaker:  I will feel respected and that my feelings are cared about and important to my family.

As the therapist you might make clinical decisions to help the couple further explore why it is so important for the speaker to feel this way, is this connected to some kind of psychodynamic attachment injury, or previous story, etc.  Once you have fully explored the speakers perspective the Listener will then reflect back the speakers viewpoint, feelings and needs, validate them and if possible empathise.  The couple then reverse roles and continue the conversation on the same topic.

So, the main differences between the Rapoport Intervention and active listening is that the speaker holds the floor without interruption and is assisted by the therapist/listener to explore their perspective, their feelings and their needs at a deeper level than a traditional ‘I statement’ generally allows.  The listener also is required to not just reflect back the speakers words, but also their feelings and needs and to validate and empathise with them.  This helps the speaker to feel really heard and understood at a deeper emotional level – this is the power of the Gottman-Rapoport Intervention.

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