Creating Safety in Relationships: Crucial Conversations in Couples Therapy
In my last article, I discussed the concept of making your desires clear in a crucial conversation with your partner, as well as a skill to help you clarify what you want. That skill consisted of asking yourself three questions:
- What do I want?
- What do I not want?
- How can I get what I want and avoid what I don’t want?
This skill basically teaches a person the incredibly important perspective of conflict management: seeking the mutual benefit, or the win-win. I find an alarming amount of real opportunities for both parties in couples therapy to be satisfied when I help them to both know what they want and what they’re worried about – and to seek a mutually beneficial solution. These win-win situations otherwise are commonly, tragically missed, like the proverbial money left on the table.
In this article, I focus on creating safety in relationships. This fulfills the other side of the crucial conversation coin: If you know what you want and are ready to talk, it is now important to make sure they are ready to talk also!
Skill 2: Draw the Other Person Out
When people come to me for couples therapy, I usually listen to both sides of a couple’s crucial conversation and hear two good points coming from two defensive stances. I often say, “You both have made good points. Both are valid. But the key here is not making your case, but feeling heard. So who will listen to whom? Someone has to go first – who’s it going to be?”
Even when we’ve asked ourselves the questions of what we want, don’t want, and possible win-win’s, and we are aware of what motives we have in a conversation, it is often still difficult to let go of our unhelpful behavior when we perceive a power differential. When a discussion or argument becomes a matter of power, of winning and losing, then it is a fight! As humans, we believe that our unhelpful behavior gives us control and power, and that relinquishing that behavior would give our ‘opponent’ an advantage over us.
It is just as difficult for humans to bear a lack of control as it is to not press our own advantage. When we step down from an escalated conflict to take a more rational and connected approach, we can often feel like we’re copping out or letting our partner dominate us. Nonetheless, in order to escape a stance of being opponents, you have to go first. Can you feel the twinge in your gut saying ‘No way! Not doing it!’ to that idea? The good news is that this is an empowered stance and not a false humility; you don’t have to want the other person to win, you just need to want the relationship more than a win.
After naming what you want, contrasting it with what you don’t want (out loud, with clear words), and asking the other person if they would join you in a solution, invite them to share their own path and what they really want. Give them the chance to be heard before you make sure they know where you are coming from.
If the other person is resistant (“I don’t know what I want. Why are you asking me that?!”), try communicating that you’d like to come up with a mutual purpose together and would be willing to wait until they know what they want so you can form that together. Can you feel how such a response might soften your own heart from trying to win? Hopefully it will, and you’ll create a shared goal you can approach as a team! If you still don’t get anywhere, however, try practicing the following ABC steps:
Skill 3: Communication ABC’s
When you’re met with resistance, often it’s a sign that either the other person doesn’t want to give up leverage in the conversation, or there’s a safety issue making them feel like they can’t share with you.
Here are three “Communication ABC’s” that help create safety for the other person to join you toward a more rational, connected dialogue:
- Agree: If you agree with the other person’s wants/path, say so and keep moving! Say it clearly, and out loud. Take any opportunity you ever get to agree and join.
- Build: If the other person leaves something out, simply add to their point instead of turning to disagreement. Don’t challenge them because they didn’t get the full picture – just build. A surefire technique: Any place you’d be tempted to say “Yeah, but…” work hard to replace it with, “Yes, and…”
- Compare: When you differ significantly, avoid suggesting that the other person is wrong. This doesn’t lead to connection and mutual benefit! Simply compare your two views. “Okay, it sounds like I feel the housework is unequal, and you feel like we are both doing an equal amount of work because of your teaching job?” This will draw out an agreement from them, even when emphasizing a difference – this may not seem like a victory, but it will have an appreciable effect on your process. Again, take any opportunity you ever get to agree and join. Always grab that opportunity, because it is such a powerful relational lubricant.
If you are interested in working on communication from a Christian strengths-based perspective, I offer individual, family, and couples therapy at my offices in Bothell and Downtown Seattle. Please feel free to contact me to inquire about setting up and initial session. I look forward to working on crucial conversations with you!
“In Love,” courtesy of ambroochizafar, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Smile,” courtesy of Gadini, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Conversation,” courtesy of Paulo Valdivieso, flickr.com, Creative Commons 2.0