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What is the “Understanding Game” and How Can it be Helpful?

Kyle Lawell, Licensed Professional Counselor

It is common for people in relationships to develop routines and habits that we find familiarity and comfort in. We have Friday movie nights, scheduled Netflix dates, and other ways of connecting that can be incredibly beneficial and meaningful. Similarly, people in relationships slowly develop a cadence in how they communicate and engage with one another. We slowly notice and derive meaning from our partner’s body movement, voice inflexions, hand gestures, pauses during conversations, and even their breathing. This cadence can be helpful when we are trying to understand what our partner is thinking or feeling. If we see that our partner is breathing heavily, blinking their eyes rapidly, and speaking at a faster pace, this might signal that our partner is distressed and needs to pause a conversation in order to calm down and engage with you in a meaningful way.

It is also common for the cadence within a relationship to become faulty or ineffective. When we find that we are often feeling misunderstood or mistreated during conversations with our partner, this could be a sign that the cadence within the relationship needs to be monitored and adjusted. One tool that can help break this ineffective cadence is what I like to call the “Understanding Game.”

The Understanding Game: This game can be done for simple frustrations (the shower curtain being left open, a dish being left in the sink for too long, your partner hurting your feelings during a previous conversation, etc.) as well as more difficult topics (conversation related to money, family, intimacy, etc.). For this game, when one person expresses a frustration, the other person’s goal is to try to understand as much as possible about the concern without interjecting their own opinions or beliefs first. With this perspective, the goal is not to defend your position or argue with your partner, but to understand fully what your partner’s concern is. This game will be done using three tools:

  1.     Open-ended questions: These questions do not have a “yes” or “no” response and take effort to answer. One benefit to asking open-ended questions is that it allows your partner space to answer more thoughtfully instead of quickly giving a response, which orients everyone involved in the conversation to the present moment.
  2. Example:  “What is it about the shower curtain being left open after I shower that upsets you?”
  3.     Reflections: This involves directly repeating what your partner is saying to you. For instance, after your partner answers the open-ended question that you asked, you can respond with, “I’m hearing you say that open shower curtains make the bathroom look messy and that our baby could fall if she slipped on the water that dripped off the curtain.” This lets your partner know that you heard them accurately and that you are engaged in the conversation. This also allows your partner to hear what they are saying, which is helpful because sometimes when we repeat things back to our partner, they realize that their words did not sound the way they intended them to be received.
  4.     Summarization: This tool is used after your partner has spoken for a large amount of time. Instead of proceeding with your own thoughts and attempting to defend yourself or rationalize your actions, start by summarizing everything you heard your partner say and allowing them room to make any amendments.
  5. Example: “Let me summarize everything I’ve heard you say so far. What you say is important to me and I want to make sure I heard you correctly. You said that…”

Attempt the Understanding Game until your partner feels like there is absolutely nothing else that you could know about their concern/frustration. The goal is to know as much as possible. This game may feel slower than typical conversations, which is also very helpful because it allows us to continuously break the cadence of how we normally speak to our partners while also gaining significantly more information about our partner’s concern/frustration. Lastly, this game is an exercise in patience and takes practice. If it does not work the very first time you try it, that is okay. The whole idea of this activity is to change our cadence in how we communicate with our partner, so try the game differently the next time.

If you find yourself enjoying this communication tool and want to continue building these skills within your relationship, one of our licensed counselors at Symmetry Counseling would be more than happy to help you. Give us a call at (312)-578-9990 or visit our website to get started.  

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