Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT
I have worked as a couples counselor for about 15 years. In that tim,e I have found that there tend to be a few common problems that couples struggle with which bring them into the offices of Symmetry Counseling; poor communication is at the top of that list. Couples within a relationship are always communicating, even with nonverbal interactions when one or the other may be engaging in the silent treatment. I have referred to communication as the oxygen in a relationship— without it, the relationship dies. A common complaint I hear expressed is that couples try to talk but have difficulty because the conversation escalates into shouting, name-calling, eye-rolling, and other forms of frustration and disrespect. There are multiple avenues to resolving this problem if the couple can set some agreed-upon rules and structure to the conversation. Here are a few tips to get you started: Invite your partner to the conversation at an agreed upon time and place – and be sure to tell him or her what you want to discuss. Set a timer for 20 minutes; if you want to go beyond the 20 minutes, each partner has to agree to it. If you feel yourself getting worked up, angry, or agitated, suggest that you table the discussion until a later time. The later time can be in a couple hours, the next day, or any other time that you are both agreeable to. If your partner asks for a
Invite your partner to the conversation at an agreed upon time and place—and be sure to tell him or her what you want to discuss. Set a timer for 20 minutes; if you want to go beyond the 20 minutes, each partner has to agree to it. If you feel yourself getting worked up, angry, or agitated, suggest that you table the discussion until a later time. The later time can be in a couple hours, the next day, or any other time that you are both agreeable to. If your partner asks for a timeout, it often works best to respect their wishes. If one of you needs a break in the conversation and the other would prefer to keep talking, the best path is to take a break. Forcing a partner to talk about a difficult topic is the road to conflict escalation. However, if you need a break, it is crucial that you reschedule the conversation. Other communication tools include taking turns having the floor. That
Other communication tools include taking turns having the floor. That is if you are speaking about a contentious issue, which, by nature, can lead to a heated discussion, recognize that your partner will have thoughts to share on the topic also. Some strategies that work include: taking turns when speaking with each of you having 3 minutes to share your thoughts. Upon the completion of one’s 3 minutes, your partner will paraphrase what you said before he or she responds. The goal here is to slow down the conversation. Too often, when discussing hot issues, we just want to make our point so we lob comments at our partner, start yelling, talk over them, sigh heavily, check our phone, etc. The idea here is to slow down the conversation so that each of you can actually hear what the other one has to say and then respond thoughtfully and respectfully. I know what I am suggesting is tough to pull off—especially when we are riled up about something, or feel mistreated, misunderstood, or over-ruled. If each partner can create an environment where both they and their partner will feel heard, there is no reason to rush a conversation, to speak over one another, or resist a request to table or postpone a conversation. Another idea for creating a respectful conversational space is to use a convenient household good, such as a book, and hand this back and forth to signify when one partner has the floor.
To recap: invite your partner to a conversation and be specific about the topic, be flexible about the time and place, set a timer for an agreed upon amount of time for the discussion, if one of you needs a break,take it and reschedule the conversation; agree to no name calling, and no talking over the other. Give each partner uninterrupted time to share thoughts about the topic, paraphrase, and then give the other the same opportunity. This may seem formal and awkward at first, but will definitely get easier over time. If you need help improving your relational communication skills, please contact us at Symmetry Counseling.