By Patricia Walker, LMFT
Hi there. I am a couples therapist with over 30 years of experience and frequently I am asked how to improve communication in relationships. The most common issue couples present in counseling is their inability to communicate when there are differences. They say their discussion escalates, and both feel very frustrated, name-calling, unheard, bullied, controlled, and angry with each other, and sometimes physical altercations. They also say they don’t know how to reconnect after a disagreement. Sometimes there is silence for a couple of days, feeling hurt, misunderstood, and lonely.
It has been my experience that if couples follow these six steps, they are more likely to feel heard and resolve the issue. But, unfortunately, most people will tell their spouse what they don’t like by blaming, shaming, or the “why” question. Also, when an issue is brought up, there is usually an opinion attached to it, such as “You don’t care about me” or “you only think about yourself,” and that is like pouring fuel on the fire.
So let’s look at the six steps “Communicate, Don’t Escalate” style to bring up an issue. If a problem is critical to talk about, then take some time to prepare what you want to say versus a “shotgun” approach. Write what you are upset about first:
1. Start with the FACTS..what someone said or did (not your opinion about what they said or did, no story.)
2. State how you felt: worried, embarrassed, lonely, hurt, ridiculed, scared, etc.
3. Write out your upset if you are angry to say whatever you want to say on paper and shred it.
4. What did you want or need that didn’t happen?
5. What choices do you see now to create a solution to have your want or need met?
You are now ready to present your problem. First, ask if this is a good time; if not, set a time.
When you are ready to talk, for the person who will listen, imagine having duct tape over your mouth because your job as the listener is to do ONLY 2 THINGS: Repeat and Listen.
6. Repeat what the other person said (even if you disagree) and what that person was feeling.
Repeating is crucial. The listener has the task of listening to the words and feelings and not giving their opinion. In our culture, one person brings up a problem by blaming or “why did you do that?” and the defensive, blaming conversation usually escalates. Also, a common negative factor is bringing up issues from the past, and now there are two or three topics on the table. Sometimes one person shuts down, walks away, or as things escalate, anger, yelling, name-calling, throwing things, holes in the walls, or physical violence.
When the person who brought up the problem feels heard and is finished, then you switch roles. The listener can now say what they want to say on that same topic (using the same six steps except step 3): facts, feelings, wants, needs, solutions, and the partner repeats what is said and states what the feelings are being expressed. No blaming or shaming messages, nor opinions nor stories.
The most crucial benefit of this communication style is that each person presents facts and feelings and not their opinions, not stories about the facts. Both feel heard and respected, understood, and more connected. Very little clean up work to do with style of communicating. Each person stays on topic, and past issues do not get brought up in this conversation. Dealing with past hurts and resentments is a different conversation, and that takes some work to help each person prepare and learn how to process events from the past.
When my couples get off course, I always encourage one of them to decide to be the listener, and they report they make more progress working through issues and finding solutions with more respect and love for themselves and each other.
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