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Listening to Hear

Heart-changing communication in six minutes

Peter Bernik /
Source: Peter Bernik /

What if the most powerful tools for effective communication1 were abilities we already have, and only need coaching on how to use them?

In fact, what if learning to use those tools has the power to change everything about our lives? And what if, by “everything,” we mean everything?

The “40-20-40” Technique

Everybody’s lives are busy, which underscores the terrific return-on-investment this tool yields. Yet its mainspring is the simplest imaginable courtesy: listening to hear.

Think of an issue, problem or conflict you’re having with another person—the more current the better.

Imagine sitting at a table with that person to discuss the issue, with a line drawn across the table halfway between you (the “50%” line).

Now imagine lines on either side of the middle, at the 60% and 40% points between you.

The goal of this exercise is for the discussion/negotiation to take place in the middle space—the 20%—between 40% and 60%. Each of you takes no more than 60% and no less than 40% responsibility for the disputed issue—in other words, you’re responsible only for “your part.”

Going past 60% should be viewed as interfering in territory that isn’t “yours” and jeopardizes the possibility of negotiation.

Insisting on staying out of the middle 20% by refusing to disclose your own feelings and concerns is viewed as ducking accountability for your part of the dynamic and jeopardizes the possibility of negotiation.

The following “rules of engagement” will help everyone to feel safe as they share:

  1. Both parties prepare by asking themselves, “What is my contribution to this issue?” This is trickier than it sounds because it’s usually easier to criticize others or to worry about what we think they’re thinking about or doing to us.
  2. Shares are strictly timed. To keep the process “tight,” three minutes is recommended for each person in each rotation.
  3. When sharing, each party focuses on sharing her or his feelings and experience of the dynamic. They must be able to do this without fear of blame, criticism, or of having it used against them. Interruption, cross-talk, giving advice or other feedback is out of place.
  4. Using information that has been shared to manipulate the other is out of bounds.
  5. Each party must be able to feel safe when acknowledging their negative contribution to an issue.
  6. Both parties listen to hear what is said by the other with the goal of improving mutual understanding,
  7. Sharing rotations are continued until both parties are satisfied with the progress achieved.

As the parties become better at the 40-20-40, the need to criticize or blame shrinks as they start “hearing” each other. Anxiety is reduced and defensiveness disarmed, clearing a space for genuine mutual caring to develop automatically, almost without the parties’ realizing it.

With practice, 40-20-40 becomes the framework for the spontaneous process of “Self-Other Assessment.”

The Self-Other Assessment Technique

Self-Other Assessment is an inventory technique that either party can request in the middle of a troubling situation to figure out what’s going on between them.

Each person takes three minutes to share about her or his "part” in what’s happening to figure out where the discomfort is coming from and address it immediately and directly. Practicing this technique opens a space of compassionate empathy between the parties in which they can do relationship repair work, thereby enhancing mutual understanding.

This practice has the potential to transform our interactions in settings as varied as romantic relationships, between family members or among co-workers or neighbors.

The 40-20-40 and Self-Other Assessment teaches couples to create genuine reciprocity in their relationships. Members are given opportunity to claim space and usefulness in the relationship within appropriate boundaries. When used consistently, barricades fade. Defensive postures relax and we put down bad old interior and interactive habits that steer us the wrong way. The shared space in the middle (the 20%) becomes a space to share caring as well as accountability rather than remaining alone and isolated with negative feelings that keep compounding themselves.

The Road of Real Relationship

Non-judgmental, open-hearted listening as practiced in the 40-20-40 is probably new and difficult for many of us. But don't give up: everyone makes mistakes at first, crossing boundaries, criticizing our partner, and generally making a mess of it. The good news is that we can even advance our recovery from dysfunctional patterns by “getting it wrong,” and then using these techniques to share the task of putting it right again.

If we really want to change “the way things have always been” or the way they “always seem to go,” wouldn’t six minutes be worth the health of ourselves, our partner and our relationships?

Give it a try: we’d love to hear how it goes!


1Via the same mechanism that effectively suppresses conscious awareness of relational anxiety (Brainlock as joint dissociative defense), we—baby and bath water—forfeit the possibility of achieving effective communication. Recovery from irrelationship—working through internal conflict, adjusting to relational anxieties—is a process of claiming our own part of those contributions we've made to what is wrong and what is right about our relationship. It is not a process of criticism—self or other—but of discernment and accountability that opens the door to processes that are antithetical to irrelationship: effective communication.

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Irrelationship Group, All Rights Reserved
Source: Irrelationship Group, All Rights Reserved
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