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10 Keys to Becoming Psychologically Savvy

It's never too late to learn the skills that sustain well-being.

Psychological savvy enables communication in relationships to flow in a smooth and positive tone so a relationship stays warm and safe. These skills are essential for working and for living with others, and all the more so in a long-term committed relationship or marriage.

What specific psychological understandings truly make a difference?

In my clinical work with couples of all types, the following 10 psychologically savvy understandings stand out as essentials. I describe them more fully in From Conflict to Resolution, my book on psychopathology and therapy, in The Power of Two, on becoming a successful couple, and in other Psychology Today blog posts (see links below). Here though is a brief summary of each.

1. Conflict matters.

Conflict, within or between people, or between people and a situation (illness, finances, etc.), is the central cause of emotional distress.

Resolve the conflict (issue, problem, dilemma) in a win-win way and the negative feelings of distress will evaporate. Resolve the issue in a manner that is not win-win and negative emotions are likely to continue to fester.

Yet many people are reluctant to address conflicts and other problems head-on, perhaps for fear that anger or fights may erupt. Be sure you know the skills for what I refer to as the win-win waltz so that instead of anger or avoidance you will feel comfortable talking about touchy topics.

2. Depression results when conflicts are resolved by giving up.

When depression feels like a dark cloud hanging over your life, you can make that cloud go away using a visualization exercise. The visualization helps you first to identify the specific conflict that triggered the depressed, helpless, and hopeless feelings. It then helps you to summon up a stronger inner you. The visualization then guides you to readdress the dilemma from a position of increased power. With the old dilemma solved in a new way, even just in the visualization, depression lifts.

Bringing about a new and more acceptable solution to the issue in real life will result all the more in a lifting of the depressive cloud.

3. Anger is a tool for solving differences via intimidation and coercion.

Anger motors coercive conflict resolution, that is, attempts to get your way by overpowering others.

Anger generally arises to increase your inner sense of power so that you can dominate and get your way in the face of a situation where you may not otherwise get what you want. Unfortunately, however, in winning the battle you are likely to lose the war, at least if your ultimate goal is to sustain positive relationships.

I can assure you that none of your loved ones, friends, or work colleagues like being the recipient of your anger, whether the anger comes out in quiet daggers of sarcasm and snide remarks, as major emotional explosions, or in any intensities in between.

So if you feel angry, first calm down so you can think again, as anger will have temporarily frozen the thinking parts of the brain (like a computer freezes when it overheats). Take a break from the topic, and even exit the situation if you have begun to heat up emotionally.

Once you feel back solidly in the calm zone, then ask yourself two questions: "What do I want?" followed by, "What might be a better way than using anger and intimidation for me to get what I want?"

4. Because anger creates deafness to others' concerns, it works against finding win-win solutions.

When you feel angry, you are likely to feel that your own concerns are holy in their importance and that the concerns of others are mere irrelevant whispers. The result of anger intensity therefore is deafness to others' perspectives, preferences, and concerns.

Win-win solution-building depends however on two symmetrical phenomena: explaining your own concerns and understanding others'. When anger blocks listening the road to win-win gets closed. Re-open the road by calming yourself and then making sure that you have quietly explained your concerns, and that you sympathetically understand the concerns of the others.

5. Anxiety is sustained by a freeze reaction to a troubling conflict.

Anxiety arises initially as a fear response to something that looks like it may harm you. Anxiety then stays in your system to the extent that you freeze, like a deer in headlights, unable to mobilize for information-gathering and thereby unable to map a strategy to resolve the difficult issue.

When two or more persons, such as for example a couple, both may feel immobilized with respect to a conflict, What we would call anxiety within a person becomes "tension" when it is experienced between people.

What's an antidote to worry? Information.

As John Lubboc wrote way back in the 1800s, "A day of worry is more exhausting than a week of work." Besides, continuing to worry will only feed your anxiety. Moreover, worry keeps you stuck, which is likely to keep your anxiety going and growing. How can you get information? Ask good questions.

6. Asking open-ended questions yields more understanding than yes-no questions.

Understanding other people's perspectives enables relationships to flow smoothly. Yet too often, attempts to gain this understanding are hampered by the format of questions.

"Did you...?" or "Have you ....?" or "Are you ...?" may be well-intended. At the same time, they invite yes-no answers instead of more open sharing. By contrast, "How...?" and "What ...?" questions invite more ample information flow.

7. Good sentence-starters keep dialogue safe.

Most couples therapists understand that I-messages sustain relationships. You-messages (sentences that begin with the word you) undermine relationships, pushing people away.

One nuance to keep in mind: The word "I" alone is often insufficient to launch and sustain collaborative dialogue. For instance, "I think that you are ..." clearly conveys that there is criticism coming, even though the first word conforms to the I-statement rule.

Here's a more general rule:

You can talk about yourself, sharing your insights. Or you can ask about others, especially with open-ended How or What questions. Talking about the other person however is out of bounds, e.g., "You think that I ...."

Safe sentence-starters give an added boost to help folks stay talking about themselves or asking about others. Here are several especially useful phrases for starting to talk about sensitive issues. (See my post on safe sentence starters, for more info on these skills.)

  1. I feel (felt) _______ that (or when you) ___________. Fill in the first blank with a one-word feeling, e.g., I feel sad...".
  2. My concern is _______________________
  3. I would like to _______________________. Note: Avoid "I would like you to _____," which is telling someone else what they should do. This sentence starter is highly provocative as it comes across as invasive and controlling.

8. Expression of positivity makes you feel more positive, invites positive response toward you from others, and makes your relationships flow more smoothly.

Praise yourself. Thank a higher power. Listen: Listening is loving. Agree: Agreement is validating. Smile and let yourself feel and show affection. Appreciate and express gratitude toward others.

William Arthur Ward, quoted above, had a kindly reminder in this regard. "God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say 'thank you?'"

9. When in doubt, get out — at least for a few cool-down moments.

When you are uncertain whether you can stay in the calm zone, a quick and gracious exit can prevent unfortunate emotional escalations. "Excuse me please for a moment; I need to get a drink of water."

After the exit, calm yourself. Take a few minutes to figure out how to resume a more productive version of the prior discussion, then re-enter in a calmer mode.

For more details on how to jointly design a mutual exit routine with loved ones, see my earlier post on that topic.

10. Skills in any of the four collaborative interaction arenas raises the level in the other arenas.

The four arenas are win-win decision-making (conflict resolution, or problem-solving), positivity, collaborative dialogue (talking and listening), and emotional self-regulation (staying calm instead of getting irritated or mad).

Alas, the opposite principle also is true. Departures from skills in any one of these four areas invite departures in the others.

That is, solving a problem in a win-win way creates goodwill, which invites a flow of positivity (smiles, helpfulness, empathy, appreciation, etc). These positive actions and feelings in turn help people relax so that they use their best, most cooperative, dialogue skills, which in turn also decreases the odds that anger will erupt.

By contrast, a glitch in any one of these four areas invites lower functioning in the other three. An outburst of anger invites a return of defensive or aggressive comments, lowering willingness and ability to find win-win solutions and inviting also a decrease in expressions of positive feelings like appreciation, gratitude, or even empathic listening.


Why suffer needlessly? Even small additions to your general emotional/psychological savvy can often make a significant difference in the extent to which you generally live in a mode of well-being.

Yet knowledge alone does not create change. Are you ready to dedicate yourself to practicing and using your psychological understandings to guide your actions in new directions?

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark—Michelangelo

(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D

Also see my book Prescriptions Without Pills, which expands on the information in this blogpost.