Helping clients keep or revitalize loving relationships are long-term goals for those who specialize in couples counseling. Those goals get derailed when one or both clients storm out of the room during the middle of a heated debate during an intake session. Therapeutic ruptures and divorces can happen if counselors fail to quickly mediate couples’ arguments, especially if the counselor has not yet established credibility and an alliance with the clients.
Success in couples counseling sometimes depends upon gaining a therapeutic alliance with both partners while simultaneously preventing or resolving emotional outbursts. However, simply teaching couples polite ways to communicate will not keep them together, according to John Gottman. Another technique or approach is warranted. Couples who come to counseling are seeking relief from anger, tension and communication breakdowns, so it makes sense for us to offer them a new way of relating to each other.
I developed a technique to help couples communicate and self-disclose in a nonthreatening way and used this technique as my intake in private practice starting in 1996. What is different about this creative technique? The secret may be the miscommunication model. I found the missing key to helping couples alter communication patterns was engaging them in creating a drawing that contained the reasons they struggled to keep calm and communicate their needs and wants. While completing this drawing, people gained insight into the ways they had been miscommunicating.
What is lacking for many couples is the ability to debate, relate and communicate without blame, shame and anger. While drawing the miscommunication model, each person recognizes that communication is difficult and that everyone struggles with multiple barriers. For most, the drawing is a cathartic exercise that can shift the common blame-game conflicts to goal setting and nonthreatening communication opportunities.
Most people come to counseling with the expectation of a tell-all session focused on disclosing problem after problem, or they complete a checklist of problems before a session begins. Unfortunately, intervention strategies specific to preventing or defusing negative or emotionally charged situations is a skill gap in counselor education. This raises an important question: How do counselors gain trust simultaneously with two strangers, provide tools to promote their affective connection, and prevent outbursts and ruptures during a volatile first session?
Establishing multiple therapeutic alliances
As is the case with individual counseling, a therapeutic alliance is the most important factor in successful couples counseling. Gaining a therapeutic alliance with two people simultaneously is a multifaceted challenge, however, especially when these individuals are trying to describe relationship concerns and upsets to a stranger.
Conflict resolution for couples begins after a counselor establishes ground rules and structure during the intake session. The first important rule is to establish how clients can have a calm session. If a first session is filled with anger and centered on problems, counselors will find it more difficult to form a bond with these individuals. Establishing a nonthreatening review of couple challenges is one way to provide catharsis, encourage openness and set ground rules. Sessions should also end with goal setting to keep a calm home environment in between sessions.
I developed the miscommunication model during years of intake assessments to deescalate anger and promote a working relationship among all people in the counseling room. As part of the effort to establish an alliance with both people simultaneously, the model provides counselors with a way to demonstrate barriers to a satisfying relationship while establishing nonthreatening goals and tasks. The first tasks are to provide the mechanism through which each client will participate in counseling, learn about barriers to healthy communication, and gain awareness of ways that relationships can be derailed. In demonstrating the miscommunication model, counselors can then help couples learn to express what they want.
Clients may not come to counseling with a set of rules for governing appropriate self-disclosure. Therefore, counselors can introduce the tenets of choice theory’s WDEP (want, do, evaluate, plan) system concurrently with the miscommunication model to add a directive structure to counseling sessions, according to internationally known choice theorist Robert Wubbolding. The purpose of combining the WDEP system and the miscommunication model is to first outline how common traits, past experiences, barriers, learned patterns, language and its meanings, emotional reactions, life interference and family rules contribute to a breakdown in couple communication, and then to introduce a way to build a happier relationship.
The miscommunication model approach to intake interviews
The miscommunication model was developed to help clients understand and conquer the many barriers to an improved relationship. One potential helpful insight is that people can and often do have different “wants” or needs in a relationship. Choice theory’s WDEP system provides structure when integrated in this model.
In some cultures, relationship conflict begins when one of the partners in a couple believes that both partners should share common wants. Counselors can provide conflict-resolution templates to help couples thwart power struggles (for example, by getting the couple to focus on helping each other attain goals rather than focusing on whose wants are more important). Guiding couples to learn aspects of negotiation and acceptance are additional ways that this model promotes a healthy relationship.
What has been missing in previous approaches to couples counseling is engaging couples in a conversation about the ways that anyone can be misunderstood when trying to communicate. One way to engage clients in intake sessions is to draw a diagram denoting two people communicating and then to explain the common barriers to and complexities of relationships. Framing this information in a way that suggests that interpersonal communication can be improved adds hope for couples with relationship ruptures.
Miscommunication barriers vary, and the model illustration on page 39 shows only a small sampling of these barriers. Clients can be encouraged to come up with more examples that fall under headings such as personal characteristics, past experiences, brain lies, family rule books, rate of talking versus rate of thinking, life event disruptions, and words and definitions. Counselors who draw a miscommunication model — with clients’ input — can integrate the goal-setting WDEP system tenets of “what are our wants,” “what will we do,” “evaluate” and “plan for and create a quality world.” This is a refreshing new way to engage clients in a nonthreatening conversation.
People who come for couples counseling typically have not been able to resolve their differences and are seeking assistance to do so. Learning that people miscommunicate many times a day helps to remove some of the blame, shame, guilt and anger that are often present in these relationships. These negative emotions can be the underlying cause of a ruptured relationship. Learning about the many ways that miscommunication has disrupted their relationship also serves to add skills to the couple’s toolbox. It is important for counselors to normalize the frequency of miscommunication by pointing out that everyone differs in some way and that disagreements are commonplace, not the exception.
Discussing the barriers that hinder relationships can be tricky business. People depend on counselors to lead conversations about problem-solving though, and the place to begin is by talking about the “elephants in the room.”
The first barrier to communication in the miscommunication model is each person’s differing characteristics. Each person has different traits, cultural influences, coping and defense mechanisms, learned behaviors, circumstances and life predicaments that can hinder relationship harmony. Some clients can easily list other attributes that differ, including age, race, religion, education, interests, abilities, sibling status, and work or military experience. Others may note differences in body language, personalities, parental influences, relationship histories, likes and dislikes, communication habits and health issues. A few clients might disclose traumatic experiences, medical histories and pre-existing thoughts about counselors or the counseling process.
This extensive list can be developed over several sessions if warranted. Counselors can explain that many of the barriers will be unspoken and unconscious. It is sometimes appropriate for counselors to note that barriers can be kept secret to protect the emotional safety of the clients. One example of this is that clients are not pressured to disclose childhood abuse. Significant others or spouses may not realize that certain topics are “off limits” for the other person in the room.
Preventing session blowups and engaging clients in a calm conversation about what has changed in their relationship involves helping couples gain insights into their communication skills. At some point in their couplehood, their ability to discuss what they want/need and how to share problems changed.
Sometimes the differences or discrepancies in how people relate to one another are obvious and sometimes not. When discussing relationship barriers, it is wise to point out how a person’s past or lived experiences can create a block to understanding another person’s actions, decision-making, problem-solving abilities, and likes or dislikes. For example, a couple might argue about going to a certain restaurant without being able to talk about a past negative experience that is influencing the thinking, emotions or actions of one of the partners. The miscommunication model would focus attention on this important discussion topic by adding it as a conversation bubble for one of the communicators in the drawing.
Talk about family rules
One way to introduce the “family rules” miscommunication barrier is to discuss the family-learned communication styles that Virginia Satir wrote about in Peoplemaking. Her communication styles and “family rule books” of placater, distractor, computer, blamer and open communicator can be added between the two people in the miscommunication model drawing. This is the counselor’s judgment call and depends on how volatile the couple’s relationship can be.
Another Satir concept, “can of worms,” illustrates the complicated communication patterns in families and can be added in a future session should it become a hot button issue. If a client points out that the other person’s family has a rule book of open warfare and verbal onslaughts, I recommend noting this as a topic for a future session.
Another family rule book example that can be noted for future discussion is the concept of “life expectations.” Many times, derailed personal goals connected to children, work, education or bill paying can be hidden aspects behind relationship dissatisfaction. Although understanding a client’s values, morals and beliefs is an important part of establishing trust and a therapeutic alliance, an intense discussion around these topics can derail the focus on issues during the first session. It may be beneficial for counselors to be directive and to suggest that such topics be developed in future sessions, after the therapeutic alliance has been well-established among everyone involved.
Normalize individual differences
Yet another barrier to communication is our personal brain differences. Part of the benefit of the miscommunication model drawing is the catharsis clients feel when they realize that many other people have struggled to keep a relationship thriving. Counselors might point out the many possible differences between people in learning styles, intelligences, interests, values/morals and perceptual acuities/filters. Also, people “screen” in and retain information differently, yet they may not realize these differences.
In the miscommunication model, these differences can be demonstrated by drawing two brains and pointing out the different ways, speeds and processing pathways for each person. For example, Person A may process and filter by using cognitions or thoughts first. Person B may process by filtering feelings first. Yet another person can believe that they verbalized a thought even when they didn’t because we think faster as humans than we speak. Drawing the two brains can aid in emphasizing that each person in the relationship has unique qualities. Note that people have different processing speeds and rates of speech too. This provides clients with an opportunity to gain awareness and new insights.
Some counselors who draw the miscommunication model use the phrase “our brain lies to us” to describe another barrier: conceptualizations. To help clients grasp the concept that the brain sometimes “lies,” counselors can offer the examples of optical illusions or mistaken perceptions by witnesses. Some clients may resist the notion that their brain isn’t always a dependable source of accurate perceptions. The knowledge that information is not always perceived, interpreted, processed and retained correctly can be unsettling. Counselors may wish to ask permission to point out inconsistent communication to highlight instances when the “brain lies.”
When drawing the miscommunication model, counselors can also add the ways that people differ genetically, developmentally and stage/age wise, and then discuss those aspects.
The miscommunication model next leads to introduction of the Do tenet from the WDEP system. This helps clients shift to a discussion about how to resolve or respect individual differences.
Daily life barriers
Daily life disruptions are constant sources of miscommunication. Any number of new or co-occurring outside events can affect a person’s relationship and communication quality. Family, work, environment, health issues, money issues and other stressors can add to a person’s strife and grief. In the miscommunication model, the importance of these variables could be added or symbolized as a conversation bubble that is drawn or attached to the second person in the couple interaction. The risks involved in second marriages, deaths in the family, and child rearing are common topics within this barrier. During this discussion, counselors may engage clients in ideas about evaluating their situations, establishing their plans and setting goals.
Words and language as relationship barriers
Words are one of the biggest hindrances to successful couple communication. How a person defines a word or phrase can cause grave misunderstandings, especially when there is a lack of clear definition related to emotions. I would caution counselors not to ask clients, “What is your definition of love?” because that query can result in a storm-filled diatribe in session. Conversely, pointing out that emotion-laden words such as love may be defined in many ways can be a healing approach.
Miscommunication also happens in cultural and historical contexts. Newly created terms used in texting, social media and alternative forms of communication (such as meta communication) only sometimes have shared meanings. For example, one couple split their household over the phrase, “I am done.” One spouse interpreted this as the intent to divorce, whereas the other spouse interpreted it as meaning their conversation had ended.
Another couple’s rupture was healed after talking about how one of them expressed love through behaviors rather than verbally. The husband realized he had learned about love from watching John Wayne movies and had internalized a belief that “I don’t have to say I love you, I just do.” He also learned an important evaluation skill — that challenging a learned reaction and confronting a prior belief could benefit both him and his wife. His wife benefited from learning that he was not intentionally dismissing the words that would typically be used to express an affective connection. She also started observing the favors and actions he did to show his caring for her between counseling sessions. This problem resolution happened because of her request to “receive the gift of a verbal love commitment — the statement of ‘I love you.’”
I have seen couples benefit from discussing throughout the counseling process words that have different meanings or definitions. Some examples of words that often have different contexts or descriptors include committed relationship, separation, affective connection, friendship, change and going steady.
Integrating WDEP’s problem-solving steps
The final aspect of the miscommunication model and the integrated WDEP system is the creation of a plan. (While the evaluation aspect of WDEP is not elaborated on in the model, it is part of the ongoing discussion orchestrated by the counselor in the room.) The plan can have three goal sections — one for each member of the couple and one for the couple as a unit. Each person is given a chance to state one goal that will facilitate the creation of their “quality world.” This is an important aspect to goal attainment and success, according to Wubbolding and his associate, John Brickell.
Typically, the couple goal is a fun and easy task or set of tasks. One of these might be to plan an activity in which both individuals create a new interest together and then report back to the counselor about what was accomplished. The plan should include a timeline and should feature positive, mutually agreed upon and doable activities, according to Mark Young, a counselor educator at the University of Central Florida.
One of the skills that counselors can model during the session termination phase is to frame plan changes in positive ways. For instance, instead of wording a goal with terms such as “unmet expectations,” counselors can help clients set goals that are “gifts for each other” that lead to relationship improvement.
Drawing the miscommunication model and integrating the WDEP system on a piece of paper that the couple can take home is a great way to assist them in recalling homework, goals and barriers to future interpersonal communication. It also is an unexpected presentation method. One benefit to drawing the dynamics of interpersonal communication is that couples can come to future sessions better prepared to diagram their miscommunications. This paves the way to increased insights about their conflicts and arguments.
When counselors try to teach clients different or accepted ways to communicate without first gaining their trust and, more importantly, their insights into barriers to communication, they often fail to help couples improve and stay in committed relationships. Relationships can improve, but it involves a process of learning how communication can go in a wrong direction. People can more easily change their attitudes and opinions about each other if they are given information that empowers positive change. The miscommunication model is a tool that couples can use to discuss their individual wants, intentions, behaviors and plans.
Simultaneously conducting an intake assessment and providing education about how to navigate relationships has been successful in helping me prevent couples counseling ruptures and storm-filled counseling sessions. Counselors can combine the miscommunication model with the WDEP system for a directive approach that leads to problem resolution.
- “Applying reality therapy’s WDEP tenets to assist couples in creating new communication strategies,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey and Robert Wubbolding, The Family Journal, 2016
- “Couples counseling directive technique: A (mis)communication model to promote insight, catharsis, disclosure and problem resolution,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey, The Family Journal, 2010
- “Therapeutic alliance: A review of sampling strategies reported in marital and family therapy studies,” by Barbara A. Mahaffey and Paul F. Granello, The Family Journal, 2007
Barbara A. Mahaffey is the executive director of the Scioto Paint Valley Mental Health Center, an agency that serves clients in five counties in Ohio with outpatient and residential facilities. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
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