A Review of The Power of Two

Welcome back to my review of The Power of Two by Susan Heitler. In our last post we covered the fourth basic of communicating, no polluting. We discussed and defined tact and how to utilize it within your communication with your partner. Today we will be diving into the fifth basic of collaborative dialogue, listen to learn.

-Courtney, Graduate Intern


Have you ever tried to play catch with yourself or be the singer, back up singer and dancers all in one performance? This may seem, and honestly is, random but it brings me to exactly what I am talking about today. If you try to play catch by yourself you will quickly get bored because every time you throw the ball you have to be the same one to go retrieve it and basically you end up playing fetch with yourself. This is like having a conversation in which your partner is not contributing to the conversation or one where you constantly find yourself picking up the same ball (topic/thought/feeling/concern) and throwing it out there hoping it will be caught and noticed. Now the one man band and performer on the other hand is comparable to the individual in a conversation who is a part of the conversation in order to take away from it what they need to build a better case for themselves, or in this case build a better solo performance.

Let us break this down a little more so I can be direct with you guys. Dialogue takes two people, one person to give information and another to receive the information. As a listener you have the choice to be a catcher like in baseball and receive the information or act more like a soccer goalie and work to deflect the information. The way that someone may communicate with a catcher versus a goalie will be different, either cooperative or adversarial. Adversarial conversations evoke shame, guilt, anxiety, and defensiveness while cooperative communication makes us feel loved, valued, and nurtured. To be able to engage in cooperative communication you need to be willing to listen to learn. Listening for what is factual, useful and makes sense to you helps you learn about where the other person is coming from and the presenting situation. Alternatively, when we listen to reject, we listen for what is wrong, needs revision and feels antagonizing. Think of it as taking the perspective of a litigator, detective, or a judge. Each seeks fault and flaws in the defense and creates tension.

When we listen to learn, you must have an open mind and genuine interest in what your partner is saying in order to digest and understand what your partner is communicating. Having an open mind entails being willing to absorb new information and perspectives whereas, genuine interest requires a demonstration of respect for your partner’s insights and having compassion. Furthermore, in this cooperative dialogue you can ask questions of your partner to gain clarification and offer opinions and insights. Engagement in attentive listening in this way leads to enrichment, positive development and communication of appreciation and intimacy.

Now how can we figure out if we are listening as a catcher or a goalie? Heitler’s first two secrets to listen to learn entail limiting and changing the use of the word ‘but’. When someone uses ‘but’ after making a statement, the ‘but’ nullifies that statement. In other words, it takes away from the conversation, the insights and opinions of your partner and leads to frustration and repetition. You will notice this not only in the use of the word, but also in the feeling that you are spinning your wheels or going in loops. As a result of this rejection of information, partners miss each other’s needs. Heitler suggests transforming ‘but’ to ‘and’ in order to encourage addition and connection. When our words communicate rejection of thoughts and ideas they can be internalized by our partner as a rejection of self which evokes deeper concerns. By using ‘and’ in our conversation we use what is called dialectics. This allows two ideas and experiences to be true and coexist without the invalidation of either. This allows progression within a relationship and allows the couple to talk with one another as opposed to against each other.

I mentioned attentive listening earlier, but it deserves to be elaborated on. To practice attentive listening your focus tunnels in on only what your partner is saying. Now, let us be realistic, we are human, and we get distracted and that is okay. What we are distracted by in these moments provides information into whether we are just simply distracted or if we are rejecting our partner’s communication. If we are busy formulating a response to what our partner is saying or running a tab on points to make against your partner, you are rejecting the conversation. If you get distracted by an odd noise in your house, you are safe. What happens when we listen attentively is that we digest the information as we would food which nourishes the relationship. Why wouldn’t I want to listen to my partner though, I genuinely care about them!

Here are a few reasons that Heitler suggests:

  • Habits from home: problems within your family of origin
  • Defensiveness: when defending yourself feels most important in your response to your partner
  • Distraction: multitasking
  • Processing deficits: difficulties with attention, comes out as vague answers
  • Either-or, right-wrong, mine-is-better thinking: trying to prove yourself right, results in a missed opportunity for both partners to win
  • An oppositional stance: locking into adversarial attitude

When partners engage in attentive listening, they gather power in the information they take in. This can benefit the couple in positive and negative situations as it creates opportunities for them to verbalize their feelings. There are many uncomfortable conversations that couples come across in particular the ones that are a result of a behavioral mistake. These conversations can especially evoke rejection but Heitler throws out some reassurance reminders.

  • Your behavior is not you
    • your partner can reject your behavior without rejecting you. This is an opportunity to acknowledge and learn from past mistakes
  • The part is not the whole
    • you can make mistakes AND have positive traits; in the bigger picture this mistake means little.
  • You are not expected to know everything
    • mistakes do not make you a bad person
  • All of us are imperfect
    • we cannot meet perfection, but we can listen and learn

Do not worry, I was not going to stop at only the suggestion of switching ‘but’ to ‘and’ in order to improve your communication. The next recommendation Heitler gives is to learn detoxification skills. This is done in looking for what is useful in what your partner is communicating, responding with ‘yes’ in order to establish cooperation, communicating what is useful and factual, and replacing negative statements with neutral statements. Next, show your partner that you have heard them to reduce repetition.

Ways to show you are listening:

Head nods                   non-verbal sounds                   paraphrasing

                        Asking relevant questions       Responding in a way that builds on conversation

Lastly, use strategic reiteration. Reiteration itself establishes cooperation and lets the speaker know what information has been digested by their partner. Furthermore, it prevents misunderstandings and conveys a message of care about your partner and the information they have shared.

Follow along as we continue to dive into The Power of Two and its use with married couples, dating relationships, and single people. Bear in mind all information provided comes as a review of Heitler’s book and from a clinician actively learning and utilizing the tools.

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