Deep Listening

Mark Hirschmann, PhD


This is a three step exercise for couples wishing to develop greater closeness. Both partners need to be calm and have a sincere desire to make things better. One partner describes a concern from his/her point of view hoping that the partner will understand it better. Although this is not a problem-solving exercise, it tends to make working on problems more productive. Hint: It is usually helpful to prepare for the exercise by reading the description below and then have a copy of the attached pathway diagram available for reference during the exercise with your partner.

Step 1: Mirror

The Expresser (E) begins with a concern and the Listener (L) demonstrates an understanding of that concern. It is important for E to limit statements to a length that L can remember and repeat.

To “mirror a concern” L repeats the concern word for word. By repeating the concern, L is not necessarily agreeing. L may be strongly opposed yet still mirror effectively.

It is natural for L to want to respond right away to the E’s concern. L must quiet these reactive tendencies knowing that the roles will be reversed soon. These reactive responses often serve as the source of the next concern when L becomes the E in a few minutes.

Repeating may seem artificial; however, there is great value for E to know he/she is being heard.

Again L must resist reacting to the concerns of E by sincerely asking, “Is there more?” This provides an opportunity for E to share more deeply.

Once E has fully expressed the concern, L summarizes it and E acknowledges its accuracy. (This opens the door for Step 2: Validate.) If the summary is not accurate then the discussion continues in the same expressing/listening format until E acknowledges the accuracy of the summary.

Step 2: Validate

To “validate” means that L finds some logical sense to the E’s concern. If the concern does not make sense then some information about E’s concern is lacking, so the couple returns to Step 1. Again, the concern of E can make sense to L even if L does not agree with it. This step makes a logical connection between L and E.

Step 3: Empathize

“Empathize” means to have some understanding at an emotional level. L makes an educated guess about what E is feeling. L must use a feeling word or a metaphor that expresses a feeling. Emotions can be difficult to grasp. Couples should take enough time to find emotional agreement.


Typically at the end, the roles are reversed. L becomes the E and has a similar opportunity to be heard. The couple may choose to have the original E continue with another concern or they may stop when the intense feelings associated with the concerns have decreased. “Deep Listening” can be challenging to learn at first. With time and perhaps with the help of a marriage and family therapist (, couples can conduct “Deep Listening” on their own and significantly enrich their relationships.
Based on the work of Rick Brown (2002), “Treating the High Conflict Couple.” Psychotherapy Networker Conference, Washington, D.C. Rick Brown is an Imago Relationship Therapist in Orlando, FL. (

Deep Listening Pathway



1. Mirror
The Expresser (E) states a CONCERN to the Listener (L) in sentence-long pieces so L can repeat them.
  The Listener (L) repeats back the sentences to E word for word.
  When E appears to be finished, L asks sincerely, “IS THERE MORE?”
E continues speaking until, E answers “NO” to the question, “Is there more?"
  L SUMMARIZES E’s concern.
E clarifies the summary, if necessary. L repeats the clarification.
When the summary is complete, E says “YES, THAT IS ACCURATE”

2. Validate

If L finds E’s concern logical (not necessarily acceptable), then L says, “THAT MAKES SENSE.”


If L does not find logic in E’s concern, L says, “Help me understand,” then the discussion returns to the Mirror step.

3. Empathize
  Once E’s concern makes sense, then L says, “I IMAGINE YOU FEEL . . .” and makes an educated guess about what E is feeling. Use actual feeling words.
E helps clarify his/her feelings about the concern.
  L repeats the feeling word ending this cycle and becoming ready to reverse roles and begin the cycle again.

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