By: Paul LaChance, Phd, LPC
“We need help communicating.” This is the most frequent issue that couples open with in counseling. But, what does healthy communication look like? It may be so easy at first, when two people are in love, that they do not notice what they are doing right. What most people do recognize from experience is that good conversations occur when the conditions are right. But, for the most part, what those conditions are remains a mystery. More often couples are better at identifying what went wrong than what went right.
So what are the ideal conditions that make for a good discussion about difficult issues?
The most obvious factors relate to what partners say and how partners speak to each other during conflict itself. But the most important things couples can do to manage conflict is what they do outside of the conflict discussions.
BEHAVIORS DURING CONFLICT Start Positive As we might expect, the end of any conversation is determined by its beginning. When we start out feeling aggressive, we inevitably find ourselves attacking and end up in a brawl. Starting the conversation with a positive tone gives the conversation a fighting chance of being a good one. Admittedly, few people look forward to a tough conversation, so setting off on a positive footing may be a lot to ask. But luckily, we don’t have to aim that high. Think Switzerland. A mix of positivity and neutrality at the start can lead to a very good outcome. Whoever begins will have the best chance of being heard by adopting a neutral to positive tone. The best way to introduce a delicate subject is to begin by talking about one’s own feelings and not blaming the other. If youreally want your partner to hear what you have to say, start by taking some ownership of your own part of the issue. Admitting even the tiniest bit of responsibility for the problem will leave an opening for you partner to do the same. Now you are not fighting but collaborating on a common problem. Complain, Don’t Criticize A complaint is a statement about a behavior that affects a person in a negative way. The focus is on feelings in relation to a specific behavior. For example, “I felt really hurt when you ...” “I felt so sad last night when you...” “I get lonely and miss you when…” Criticism moves from complaint to blame and character assassination. The complainer has a chance of being heard and getting some empathy. The critic has no change of getting a hearing and will win no sympathy. Diffuse the Tension Another great way to increase the odds that your partner will hear you and understand your point of view is to sprinkle the conversation with gestures that keep the temperature down. Some of the best ways to reduce tension in both your partner and in yourself include validating, empathy, reassurance, and, of course, humor. Validation By far the best tactic is validation. This means, stating your agreement with something (anything) your partner has said, and acknowledging the validity of your partner’s complaint or perspective even if you do not agree with it. Admitting that you understand why the other person thinks or feels that way keeps both of you in the game and cooperating. Empathy Like validation, empathy is a statement of understanding. Empathy acknowledges the other person’s feelings. Validation acknowledges why a person feels a certain way. Empathy acknowledges what the person is actually feeling right now. Reassurance For many couples, conflict escalation is accompanied but a feeling that the whole relationship is doomed and that this is the fight that finally ends it all. Relational despair colors how one person feels about this conflict and about the other person. A sense of catastrophic doom makes it harder to listen, harder to understand, harder to validate, and brings out the inner critic. A well placed, “We’re Okay” statement at the beginning and at the end of the discussion decreases the negative tone and increases the positive tone of the conversation. Reassurance can create intimacy and promote trust even in the midst of conflict. Humor Everyone knows that humor is a great way to reduce tension and to bring down the temperature in a discussion. But it can go wr
ong or not be received well. A person who is feeling very negative may perceive the humor as dismissive. With all efforts to keep the conversation civil and to repair missteps, one person’s efforts may not succeed if they are rejected by the other person. Time-out and Safety Words When all else fails, taking a time-out to cool off prevents an escalation. Calling a halt can be difficult and the couple must have a plan for how to stop, what to do during the time-out, and when to return to try again. It is important to avoid some of the most common mistakes. Just walking away without ever discussing the time-out technique can lead to feelings of abandonment and anger. Stopping the argument only to rehearse the most important points and one’s own counter-arguments will only keep the negativity alive and not lead to a cooling off. Finally, stopping an argument but refusing to come back to the topic is just stonewalling and will trigger defensiveness in the other. BEHAVIORS OUTSIDE OF CONFLICT The time and attention that couples give each other outside of conflict discussions pay excellent dividends when things get heated. When couples feel connected it is much easier to begin on a positive note, to keep things from getting out of contr
ol, to mutually regulate each other’s negative emotions, and to remember that the other person is a loved one and not an invading army. 5:1 Couples who are good communicators and who behave themselves in conflict discussions also have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions over the course of a day. A great way to achieve that desired ratio is by working on the quality of the friendship in the relationship: express admiration, respond warmly when your partner reaches out to you for connection, eat dinner together, hold hands or cuddle, do something you both enjoy, in other words, be present to your partner as you would to someone you loved. Couples with a healthy balance of positive feelings find it easier to maintain a positive perspective at the beginning and throughout a conflict discussion. Curiosity A person’s love map refers to the cognitive space one partner reserves for the other. Building a rich love map begins by being curious about a partner. When a couple first meets, each is spontaneously curious about the o
ther, in part, because they are trying to decide whether to commit to this person. Later the motive for being curious may have faded into the background. It takes deliberate effort to tap into that stream of curiosity and begin again to wonder about the inner world of the other. Individuals who feel understood and cherished by their partners are more inclined to make an effort to reduce the temperature of a discussion. They are also more inclined to respond positively to the other person’s efforts at empathy, reassurance and humor. Rituals of Connection It is a good idea to create a space on a regular basis to discuss important issues and take time to understand each other. This way issues do not fester and finally explode or boil over. These rituals also serve as a concrete reminder that “We’re going to be Okay.” Process Injuries John Gottman frequently refers to a quote by William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
” A regrettable event, or an unresolved relational injury, is an open wound. It sits in the psyche as unfinished business that cannot be forgotten precisely because it is unfinished. Couples are understandably reluctant to bring up old issues for fear of re-igniting the fight, except, of course, when they are reaching for the kitchen sink in a brawl. Learning how to process regrettable events and practicing, with a professional if necessary, are vital to the development of strong connections and good communication.