Esteemed marriage researcher John Gottman asserted, “A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.” When couples struggle to engage in effective conflict resolution, they may seek out a couples therapist for additional assistance. A couples therapist acts as an objective third party who can witness and mediate the negative cycles of interaction that couples can get stuck in.
Sometimes, especially in the early stages of therapy, couples find that once they leave the therapy room and return home, it is easy to fall back into familiar patterns of criticism, defensiveness, blame, or withdrawal. It can be helpful to have access to resources that provide a sense of structure and support as while working towards more successful communication.
The following are some exercises that illustrate the three stages of a healthy conflict resolution conversation, and the communication skills needed to effectively navigate each stage. The next time you are involved in an argument with your partner, try to practice these skills. Each partner will assume one role at a time, the Expresser role or the Responder role.
Stage One: Effective communication from the Expresser:
State your feelings and needs with “I” statements, not “You” statements.
“I feel…” (State your feeling)
“…when you…” (State the other person’s behavior)
“I would like…” (State what you want to happen)
Say: “I feel anxious when you don’t call me when you are out with your friends.”
Don’t say: “You never call me when you hang out with them!”
Be specific about what you are asking for. Avoid generalizations (“You always…” “You never…”)
Say: “I would like you to call me once at around 10pm the next time you are out.”
Don’t Say: “I want you to prioritize me over your friends. I want more attention”.
Talk about the positive feelings that you have for the other person.
Say: “I miss hanging out with you on Friday nights. I always feel closer to you after we talk on the phone”.
Don’t Say: “When you do this, I can’t even remember why I’m still dating you”.
Stage Two: Effective Listening and Communication from the Responder
Use Active Listening Techniques
Take in his/her mood.
Mirror his/her expression.
Nod your head, make brief utterances (um hmm…yes).
Maintain eye contact.
Concentrate on your partner’s emotional reactions.
Put yourself in his/her place.
Think about and feel into their emotional experience
Ask Clarifying Questions
Make sure you correctly understand your partner.
Readily accept any correction your partner makes to your interpretations and summarizations.
Say: “Are you saying that you feel like I don’t care about you when I don’t call you?”
Restate what you hear your partner saying in your own words.
Tell your partner what you think she is feeling/experiencing.
Say: “You seem to be feeling worried that I don’t think about you when I’m with my friends.”
Show your partner that you understand what they are thinking and feeling, and assure them that it makes sense to you.
Say: “It makes sense that you feel anxious when I don’t call you when I’m out late at night. It must be difficult when you have no idea where I am or wondering if I am hanging out with other men/women.”
Stage 3: Problem Solving
Focus on the specifics:
Who will do what?
When and where?
What could get in the way?
Avoid future disappointments by discussing circumstances that might make the agreement difficult to follow.
Set up a time in the near future to follow-up on the plan. Discuss how well the plan is working, and make any needed changes at that time.
*If you want to read more on effective communication skills, refer to John Gottman’s book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.