Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

What's All This Talk About Couple “Communication Skills?”

We all know how to talk. So why do couples need communication skill upgrades?

Communication skills sustain love.
Communication skills sustain love.
(c) Central Stock Stock Photography
The word communication has different meanings in different settings.  In advertising it's about selling your product.  In politics it's about convincing people of your views.  In relationships, by contrast, communication is about a two-way street.  Knowing how to communicate in a relationship or with your spouse means being able to convey thoughts, feelings and concerns in a way that the other can hear them without becoming defensive, and being able to hear the other in a way that digests and uses incoming data to both people's benefit.

Couples in distress do the opposite: they attempt to convey their concerns, but do so in a critical, intrusive, complaining or bossy way that invites defensiveness or other negative reaction. Couples in distress don't listen well either.  Instead they argue away or ignore data coming their way.

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Fortunately, argumentative and other counter-productive habits can be switched out for collaborative communication with a skills upgrade.  No need for a therapy that explores the difficulties you experienced in childhood, though sometimes a quick backwards glance at where you learned the bad habits can help. The bottom line is that if you want better communication skills, you mainly just need a good marriage education program and determine to master them. 

What is collaborative dialogue?

When two  people talk, they can talk past each other, not really listening to each other.  They can argue, debating who is right and who is wrong.  Or they can pool their understandings and aim to reach a consensus.  This third option is collaborative dialogue.   

Think of it this way: Two people can each sit at separate tables, each monologuing and ignoring what the other says.  They can sit across from each other at one table as antagonists, competing for who will win.  Or they can sit side by side, put the problem on the table, and work together as allies to solve the problem.  The latter is the collaborative dialogue format that enables couples to enjoy a harmonious and loving partnership. 

How do communication skills make a difference?

Every "communication" skill or skill deficit is the tip of an iceberg that is a relationship skill or skill deficit. For that reason, when you change a communication habit, you change the whole relationship.

For example, shouting is an example of a poor communication skill.  Eliminate the shouting and the relationship becomes more calm, kindly, and safe.

Similarly, intimate sharing and empathic listening are skills that also are acts of love. So are expressions of appreciation, of agreement, and of affection. When people say that their marital relationship is loving, it means that the spouses have skills for sharing positivity, that is, they share many positive words as well as physical acts of love with each other.

The absence of negative communication plus the presence of positive communication together add up to a verbal intercourse pattern that characterizes the relationship.

Why do some people have off-putting communication habits like yelling, insisting that they are right and the other person is wrong, or ignoring?

Folks who grew up in homes where their parents spoke argument are at risk for reverting to that language when they become marriage partners. They need to become bilingual. They need to delete the negatives and enhance the positives in their communication skill patterns.

What communication skills do couples need to be sure they have?

In addition to collaborative talking and listening skills, couples need to learn how to make shared decisions in a loving way. The new understandings from the world of mediation, which in my books I refer to as "The Win-Win Waltz," enable couples to make decisions in a way that leaves them both feeling positive, about themselves and about each other.

Without sufficient win-win decision-making skills, when couples face tough problems they are at risk for utilizing communication habits that lead to depression, anger, anxiety and tensions, or escape routes like addictions. Giving up yields depression.  Attempts to dominate invite anger. Awareness of problems without talking and resolving them fosters anxiety and tensions.  Addictions offer an escape from depression, anger or anxiety, but invite additional problems into a relationship.

To utilize their best communication and conflict resolution skills when the going gets tough, couples need skills for quieting angry feelings.  Few folks can hold onto their skills when anger launches them into feeling like they want to rage.  Couples therefore need to learn skills for amicably exiting situations that one or both of them will not be able to handle calmly.  They need skills for rapid self-soothing.  They need then re-entry routines so that they can make a second attempt to talk about the tough subject, this time staying calm so that they can hold onto their bset communication skills.

Lastly, while some folks easily share loving, appreciative and affectionate feelings, others need help learning to express positivity.  Fortunately, the best things in relationships, as in life, are free. Expressing positives to your partner is like sunshine.  It's free, and it brightens everyone's days.

Do all couple therapists coach these skills?

Many do.  

Unfortunately though, many therapists are not sufficiently up-to-date on communication skills.  They are especiallky unlikely to fully understand the skills that enable couples to do win-win problem-solving.  Instead they join the chorus that says, quoting marriage researcher John Gottman, says, "of course all couples have some conflicts they can't resolve."

That unfortunate sentence to me signifies that the therapist needs to upgrade his or her win-win conflict resolution skills. The persistence of a problem that a couple argues about again and again signifies that their skill set is insufficient for resolving the issue.

Some therapists also preach that there's no point in teaching communication skills to couples since they are likely to just throw out their communication skills once they get heated.  As I wrote above, of course that happens. So one of the "communication" skills troubled couples need their therapist to teach them is how to exit and calm down when they are getting mad. If they then return to the dialogue when they are calm enough to use cooperative dialogue and win-win conflict resolution skills again, all conflicts can be resolved.

The reality that many therapists do not themselves know and therefore can't really coach their couples in the full set of skills for sustaining successful relationships.  Graduate training does not teach the skills.  That's what prompted me to focus, in the 1980's, on figuring out what is the full skill-set that couples need.  

I wrote this curriculum up initially as a book, then, with my psychologist daughter, as a workbook, posted it on my clinical website as a free audio podcast for folks less likely to read, as a video for folks who prefer to see as well as hear, and, most recently, as a fun interactive website.  In addition, I've written up and posted on the web a free quiz for folks who want to assess their current communication skills level.

The bottom line is that I'm a campaigner for better marriages.  Better marriages, which take higher level communication skills, make for happier kids, better lives for the whole family, a better country if politicians would learn cooperative problem-solving, and ultimately for peace in the world.  Folks who know how to solve dilemmas collaboratively don't go to war with each other.

Most professionals in all fields get skill upgrades from time to time.

Continuing education is expected of most people who work at jobs that require skills.  My hair dresser gets skill upgrades.  So do my computer repairman and my doctors.

Sustaining positive love partnerships is an especially high-skills activity.  Continuing marriage education one day, hopefully, will become something all couples do.  ... Or at least so I hope.  



Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.  

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test. 

Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.


Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.


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