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Fighting to be Heard versus Fighting to Understand

Here’s an obvious statement: communication is important in a relationship.

I, along with many of my colleagues, realize that one of the most basic themes of connecting better for any relationship is having good communication skills. Poor communication skills, regardless of your level of personal insight, trauma recovery, deep therapy awareness building, etc, equals a poor relationship, generally speaking. There is always the exception, but, in general, this is true.  

In fact, another obvious statement: engaged, active, and authentic communication skills are best in any relationship.

The idea of active listening is not a new concept. The issue is that any and all listening skills tend to go right out the window when we become stressed through conflict. This is especially true when we are engaged in conflict with our significant other. Our listening skills simply disappear because we want to be heard! We are highjacked by our amygdala (emotional brain) and our frontal lobe (reasoning brain) goes completely offline. The result is a couple of 9-to-12-year-olds arguing and name calling and slamming doors, and crying, and raging, and withdrawing. The bottom line is that you fall into an infinite loop of “the more you do x, y, and z, then the more your partner does a, b and c.” And getting off of that loop can be incredibly difficult. 

So what are you supposed to do when you’re in this position of passion and anger?

Well, first, is to not get to that point (I’m just filled with obvious statements, aren’t I?). Secondly, if, when you are going into these conflicts, you remember that your partner loves you and that any conflict is not a ‘deal breaker,” then there can be a decreased sense of fear. Because fear is oftentimes what is driving that anger. Knowing that you can share the fear versus the anger decreases the need to strike out with intention of hurting the other person. Remember the minimum in any relationship is respect and that includes during conflicts.

There are a number of listening and speaking skills forms available. I like to talk to my clients about Terry Real’s “feedback wheel” and John Gottman’s concept of ‘how do you fight?’ which includes the concept of soft and harsh startups. I like these and use the concepts in my own life with my partner, children, and colleagues.

Master of Marriage or Master of Disaster

Gottman stresses the differences between how the “Masters of Marriage” and the “Masters of Disaster” approach a fight. According to Gottman, the “Masters of Disaster” raise issues harshly and the “Four Horsemen” are present (Complaint/Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling). When this manner of fighting happens, the husband tends to get more easily upset and have a harder time calming down–or he shuts down completely. In addition, this style of fighting usually has more globalized criticisms as opposed to specific examples and situations.

The “Masters of Marriage,” on the other hand, are very different. Gottman states that they raise issues gently and bring them up sooner rather than later (so as to not let them “stew”), their heart rates stay below 95 beats a minute, and the participants use jokes and reassurance to break rising tension. The “Masters of Marriage” also make at least five positive remarks or gestures toward each other for every “zinger” during a fight. Even though this is Gottman’s view, I separate a little from him here in that the goal in my view would be no zingers. However, sometimes they come out, due to old habits. When this happens, I encourage my clients to acknowledge it in the moment, apologize, and recognize that it is an old pattern and not what they want to do. Then they are able to continue.

Feedback Wheel

Another tool I use is Terry Real’s feedback wheel. Where it can feel funny at first (I have a couple that calls it “goofy talk”), it can become very natural with practice. When both partners are practicing the skills of the feedback wheel, then each knows that the goal of the interaction is about listening to the other person first and then being heard. This decreases the need to fight to be heard, which is the number one issue I have found during conflict resolution with couples.

There are four parts to Terry Real’s feedback wheel. Prior to beginning these steps, make sure to ask your partner if he/she is willing to listen and remember that your motivation is that you love him/her. Once you are ready to begin, tell your partner:

  1. What you saw/heard about one particular event.
  2. What you have made up about it (how you have interpreted this event). A question I like to ask in this stage is: “Did I get that right?”
  3. How you feel about it.
  4. What you would like to have happen in the future.

One of my favorite quotes that I share with couples as a way to plant the seed of where I’m trying to get them to go is from Brent Atkinson (The Couples Clinic):

“When people begin getting more upset about the fact that they reacted ineffectively than they are about the offensive things their partner did, they are on the verge of good things happening in their relationship.”

This is a very difficult concept for people to grasp. When we’re in the middle of conflict we desperately want the other person to hear us and understand how angry we are at what just happened. The key is better understanding the emotion we are feeling, connecting to that, and then equating it to what is happening.

Like I said earlier, having good communications skills is not a new concept in successful relationships. It is but one element of good relationship therapy. Insight by ‘turning the camera’ on your own behavior that contributes to conflict and misunderstanding in a relationship is a key component. But without engaged, aware communication skills, all the insight will go for not and your relationship will still suffer.

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