When I was in undergraduate school, I was required to take a communications class. The first few lessons were about speaking, listening and reporting back what was communicated. I thought, “Oh well, this is easy.” Then as I became part of romantic relationships, I realized this wasn’t easy at all. It came as a surprise that what was clear as a bell to me wasn’t understood by my significant other. We would end up fighting about the same thing over and over again. I am alone. The couples who come into the InMindOut office for counseling very often identify better communication as their number one goal.
In therapy addressing communication issues, couples are encouraged to really watch the words that are said as well as the tone of the communication. The underlying question is: “Will what I am about to say move the conversation forward or shut it down?” Sometimes things need to be said regardless of your partner’s reaction but verbiage and tone become really important when trying to resolve a disagreement. The first thing is to move from blame language “you did” to ownership language “I feel”. One of the first things we try to begin with is “I” statements.
There is a communication template that we use to help couples talk to each other: “When you______________________(describe behavior) I feel ________________(describe feelings) because_________________________________. It is important to talk about behavior and not personhood. Insulting and blaming doesn’t move the conversation forward and doesn’t change anything. For some couples, there seems to be the feeling if I just say my point often enough or loud enough my partner will see that I am right and he/she is wrong. When volume and repetition only lead to bigger arguments then it is time to try something else. The communication template above addresses behavior which can be changed and does not attack the person. It is a way to address behavior that is troubling and articulate the need that is currently not being met. Utilizing this template moves couples from blame talk “you did this” to ownership “I feel this”.
If we go back to the example of the communication class, it isn’t just how we say things that move a conversation forward, it is also how we listen. There are very specific techniques that help us when we are the one who is listening. Often, when our partner critiques our behavior we are simply waiting for our partner to stop speaking so we can have our turn and say all the things our partner hasn’t done. When using the above template and you are the listener the first thing is to do is to really be present. No one likes to be criticized but this is about behavior not you as a person. See if you can understand the feelings your partner has presented and validate them. You may find yourself saying something like “I know it can be frustrating to come home and the dishes aren’t out of the sink. I get it.” instead of “Well I did cooked breakfast this morning and who mowed the yard last night?” Not that what you are sharing isn’t true but you are not responding to the feelings that are being expressed and then your partner may not feel like he/she is being heard. Validating feelings keep the argument from turning into a list of who did what when which really just wastes time and doesn’t deal with what is happening now. Validating feelings is recognizing the understandable part. Whenever you can find a part of the critique then you open doors for conversation.
When we practice this communication template in session each person gets a chance to be the speaker and listener. Often there is an unmet need that is behind the critique. The unmet need can be “not feeling a connection and feeling really alone.” or feeling over- burdened or being taken advantage of. In communicating being present, validating feelings and looking for the understandable part helps your partner feel valued and heard.
By Michelle Goodwin, LPC, InMindOut Therapist, San Marcos