I love doing couples work. It is endlessly fascinating, usually challenging and often rewarding. It is a privilege and a sacred responsibility to sit in a room with two people who are both bearing their souls to each other with the shared goal of improving their relationship. When I ask couples what their goals are early on in therapy, more often than not, they tell me they wish to communicate better.
At first glance, this seems like an easy task. Many couples who come to counseling have been experiencing a lot of conflict in the relationship, and their communication might typically include yelling, insults or perhaps passive-aggressive statements and various forms of manipulation. It is very tempting to think that if we can teach them to use “I” statements and a calmer tone of voice and to verbalize feelings and perceptions rather than insults, then loving harmony will follow. It is in fact so tempting to believe this that we may ignore much of what we know about human behavior and biology in the pursuit of facilitating these relational improvements.
It is also alluring to believe that helping people improve their communication is largely a data-driven endeavor. In other words, I have information (data) as a counselor that they don’t have, and if I simply impart this information to them, they will “learn” it, and then their relationships will improve. In reality, improving communication is much more process-oriented, which means that being effective involves observing conditions in real time and constantly responding to those dynamics.
I spent far too much time as a professional counselor simply trying to give people the right words to say, and I suspect that many of my colleagues have had a similar experience. But what I have found time and time again is that many of our clients show up to a session perfectly capable of communicating well (and here’s the catch) when they are calm. In my own practice, I have discovered that emotional regulation skills are absolutely integral to good communication. I can have the prettiest, most assertive words in the world for my partner, but if my lid is flipped and I am dysregulated, it will not matter at all.
It merits mentioning that certain qualities and attributes we may wish to develop as human beings really count only when something important is at stake. For example, let’s consider the quality of patience. It is very easy to be patient when we don’t have to wait or when we feel no stress or pressure to get something done. But patience means having the ability to wait with equanimity regardless of what other factors are present. Patience is the quality of not getting upset when you have to wait for something.
Another example is the quality of loyalty. It is the easiest thing in the world to be loyal when you don’t have to sacrifice anything. True loyalty can be known only when something of value is sacrificed to maintain that loyalty. If you want to know who your loyal friends are, become a social pariah and see who still comes to your birthday party. Spoiler alert: That number will be less than 100% of your total friend group.
Techniques must work in real conditions
We understand patience as waiting calmly, regardless of the other factors. We know loyalty to mean that one stands by their friends or co-workers, even when that standing comes at a personal cost, such as missed opportunities or alienation from others. And so shall we know and recognize good communication skills when they are used in moments of difficulty.
This is important to restate and remember: Anyone can communicate well when they are calm, stable, well-fed, comfortable, etc. However, when those conditions are present, we rarely need to practice good communication skills.
When I work with couples, it is not usually the case that both parties in the room feel completely calm or at ease during the session, because difficult and very personal subjects are routinely discussed. My clients live in the real world, and their relationships are with real, complicated, conflicted human beings. They have children, they have blended families, they have traumatic experiences and upsetting memories, and all of those elements can be front and center in a session. The most important time we need to communicate well is when we are unhappy or insecure or angry or tired because this is exactly when poor communication can create additional problems.
At first, couples will not remember to use “I” statements when they get triggered because using “I” statements requires the prefrontal cortex to be online and operational. If we teach people the right words but not the methods to access those words, then we are in effect placing positive communication habits in a museum, making them something to be observed and admired but not held and utilized. Weaving together the right words and the emotional regulation techniques that allow those words to be accessed is critical to helping couples actually implement positive communication tools in their daily lives — when it counts.
Practice, practice, practice
We also need to help our clients develop a consistent communication skills practice, regardless of variations in their moods and responsibilities. Think of it this way: If you want to get good at shooting free throws, you practice when you’re happy and when you’re sad and when you’re bored. You practice in the sunshine and in the rain. You shoot so many free throws that muscle memory develops and outside conditions no longer play much of a factor in how you set up and take the shot. You control what you can control, and you let go of what you cannot control. That is what makes a great free throw shooter. Becoming a skilled communicator is no different.
When we help our clients develop a practice of positive communication skills in any situation, they become good at positive communication in any situation. Weird, right? When couples are experiencing wonderful times together, we encourage them to share feelings and impressions. We prompt them to recognize and praise their partner’s efforts and to ask for what they need. Just as with any training, the best practice early on is done in low-pressure situations to build confidence.
Over time, people develop greater skills and habits, and the increased communication provides ongoing context for each partner to observe and consider. And, often, context is the great equalizer in couples therapy. When we know what our partner is experiencing, we are much more likely to consider it and respond compassionately than when we have no idea.
The more couples practice this in various mood states and settings, the more likely they will be to access these skills when they really need to, during times of great difficulty. We should also encourage them to share feelings, impressions and needs when they are bored, mildly annoyed or at their wits’ end because, well, that’s life sometimes too.
I share this at some point with almost every couple I work with: If you make your partner guess what you need, they will get it wrong. If you tell them what you need, they have the best chance of giving what you need to you. Help your clients develop the practice and habit of asking for what they need, when they need it. This aspect alone will reduce conflict noticeably because so much conflict is centered on partners attempting to ascertain the needs of the other and getting it wrong.
Conversely, in the absence of any specific dialogue about the needs of the other, it is easy to forget for short or long periods of time that our partner would need anything at all from us. But when our partner shares and we hear what they need, we can respond to that.
Building positive communication habits
There are many ways we can help people integrate these concepts and habits into their lives. Emotional regulation can be as simple as prompting someone to take a few deep breaths while they contemplate what they want to say or asking them to let the weight of their body acquiesce to gravity and simply relax down toward the earth.
I usually ask people to identify the emotion they are experiencing and see if they can rate its strength on a scale of 1 to 10. We can ask them if they feel any sensations in their body and any associated emotions or thoughts, bringing about mindfulness of their own state prior to communicating.
I am inviting them to tune in to their own experience and tell me what they are noticing in terms of any conditions that are present. Because if they are noticing things about how they are thinking and feeling, then we know that the prefrontal cortex is working. And all of this is about slowing down and creating some opportunity for self-reflection prior to dialogue. It’s not something we need to overthink; most people will have a sense of when they are functioning well and can communicate well and when they might not be, if we direct their attention toward these factors.
I love using normal cues in the day to prompt practice. Many people eat three meals a day, so they consistently have three natural stopping points in the day to practice some of the skills discussed above. I will say to a client, “How about during lunch today, you praise your spouse for supporting you?” or “Try asking for what you need at dinner tonight, even if it is something small.”
We could prompt the use of a specific skill at any natural point in a client’s day. And we can encourage clients to be transparent, even telling their partner that they are deliberately practicing skills and would appreciate their support with those efforts (very cleverly practicing two skills at once). Their partner sees them practicing and investing in better communication, and that can be contagious.
I encourage clients to communicate well when they can or to take some time apart and buy themselves some time when they can’t. I have never heard an emotionally regulated person call their partner a harsh name or deliberately insult them in session. I have heard plenty of dysregulated people do that.
At the macro level, we know American culture places a high value on fixing problems, but at the micro level, many of us are less adept at assessing when we lack the proper tools to fix any given problem. At the risk of using too many metaphors in one article, one should not attempt to climb a mountain on an empty stomach or without water. And couples should not attempt to problem-solve serious relationship issues when they are hungry, hurt, exhausted or otherwise low on personal resources.
When it comes to having conflict with a partner, a persistent myth exists that it is wise and desirable to “hang in there.” Let me state this unequivocally — it isn’t. It is far wiser to disengage, before additional damage is done, than it is to stay in the conversation when it is clear that neither person is giving any ground or understanding the other.
If my anger is an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, that is not the best time for me to speak with you. If I want to perform reasonably well, I should probably get my anger down at least to a 4 or a 5 before I re-engage in a discussion. My task is to recognize that in myself ahead of time. Because I cannot wait until I have no feelings whatsoever to communicate, I am always trying to find that sweet spot when I am regulated enough to communicate well.
This is more important than any particular arrangement of words that we can teach our clients. Part of helping couples improve their communication skills is helping them pick their moments. Just as climbing a mountain should be attempted from a position of confidence and strength, so should problem-solving and conflict resolution flow from this position in couples work.
The important thing for us to keep in mind is that without emotional regulation and consistent practice, attempting to improve communication will be very difficult. Pretty words will not be enough.
Peter Allen is a licensed professional counselor and writer based in Redmond, Oregon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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