Tips for Communication - Couples Counselling
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Greg Savva, Counselling in Twickenham & Whitton, Masters Degree, UKCP,
13th October, 20130 Comments
The most obvious reason for you to be seeking couples counselling is because there is an unresolved conflict in your relationship and you’re not sure how to repair it, or you’re finding it difficult to communicate constructively. So if you are looking for couples counselling, these are the steps a relationship counsellor might take you through:
If your emotions are too intense take ‘time out’ - when conflict flares up it can trigger intense emotions and be very difficult to stop or think before engaging in angry arguments. The temptation is to prove who is right, score points and make sure the other person sees the problem from your perspective. However, taking time apart almost always helps us to have a more useful conversation when we do come back to the issue; as long as it has not been allowed to fester. It is worth talking about with your partner before an argument occurs and come to an agreement about how to indicate the need for ‘time-out’ once emotions have been triggered. It’s important to state in those moments that you need time out, where you will go to calm down and when you will attempt to address the issue later. You can use that time alone to plan what’s really important and how to express your needs without being abusive or defensive.
Think about changing your own behaviour - the tempting thing to do in the time out is to go over and over the argument and imagine conversations where you prove the point and come out on top. You may have a list of grievances you feel that your partner has committed against you. However, instead of focusing on what the other person can do to bring about peace, try to focus on changing yourself.
What did you bring with you to the situation as the conflict unfolded? What emotional responses do you need to be aware of in the discussion? What do you remember about patterns from the past that you have learned from? What really makes you angry or upset? These are the buttons that get pressed when we burst into tears or fly into a rage, but have little to do with the reality of the argument and more to do with memories of previous relationships or unfinished business from childhood.
You may be alert to signs that your current partner seems to be ‘repeating the past’, but it’s good idea to be aware of 'our own stuff' in relationships and make sure that we're not blaming our partners when it’s really our own hang-ups that we are trapped by.
Think about what your emotions are telling you - if we feel intense emotions like anger, frustration, or sadness during an argument we should see these feelings as helpful because they inform us about what our needs are. Do not get caught up in anticipating the worst or stereotyping certain emotions as ‘bad’. Try to listen to your emotions and express your needs without attacking you partner, so they know what your needs are and have the opportunity to meet you halfway rather than blaming them. You may have different values, but are not aware how important apparently ‘small things’ are to your partner e.g. having a conversation at mealtimes, a kiss before going to bed or phoning if you’re late.
Empathise or try to imagine alternative perspectives - once you have understood the story that you are telling it’s useful to think through the alternatives that your partner is trying to tell. You need to be sure you are not seeing things in a narrow way, until you have actually heard your partner’s version of events. If you listen actively, it can help you empathise with your partner and see how they may have an equally valid point of view or way of doing things e.g. if your partner has arrived very late without phoning, maybe their phone ran out of juice; or while you may avoid conflict because you fear arguing, your partner may see conflict as a way of clearing the air or giving voice to emotions which have been ignored.
Empathy is about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagining what it might be like for them. It does not mean belittling or compromising on your own needs. It may be that certain issues trigger fear and vulnerability from the past. You might be prepared to recognise how difficult it might have been for your partner and offer reassurance. It can also be a good idea to put aside time to connect with each other positively before a potentially difficult conversation and to focus on being kind to each other. Go out for a meal together and make an effort to be kind to each other before tackling an emotionally intense discussion.
Try to meet the other person halfway – prioritise what really matters to you and be prepared to compromise with your partner on those things which you are open to negotiating. Schedule a time to have a discussion following a conflict or when there is something important you need to talk about. Pick a time when each person is free and won't be disturbed, so each person can prepare and organise their thoughts without feeling under pressure.
Take your turn to talk and listen – it can be very helpful that when you do talk about an issue, each person is given a set amount of time to tell their story and explain things from their perspective without interruption. Take it in turns to speak. Try setting a time period so each person gets a few minutes. Make sure you stick one issue and let the other person have their turn. When you’re telling your side it is very tempting to project our emotions onto others and blame them for ‘making us feel’ angry, hurt or upset, but you must own your own feelings. Try not to accuse each other with long lists of grievances, but stick to the point at hand. Also, it’s much easier for the other person to listen to us if we can empathise and see things from their point of view. Then they are less likely to want to defend themselves; however, if we reflect on how angry, sad or scared we feel, it’s easier for our partners to see our vulnerability and show they understand us.
When you talk about your side of things it’s a good time to take ownership for what you are responsible for, rather than criticising others. The point of explaining clearly and openly is to give the other person as much chance as possible of being able to understand where we are coming from, but we also have to actively listen to the other person’s point of view. The point of listening well to the other person is to come up with a resolution that meets the needs of each person.
Often it is easy to become defensive and attack each other, but more difficult to heal the wounds. Your partner didn’t become a monster overnight, therefore it is most likely that they weren’t consciously cruel. Listen to what it was like for them. Many conflicts escalate because people want to be heard and aren’t. The point of listening is to let them express emotions and to feel validated and understood. Avoid interrupting your partner however tempting it is. Demonstrate that you are listening with your body language, vocal tone and by being encouraging. Ask questions to find out more, rather than make accusations or challenges. Try to enter the conversation from a place of curiosity without judgement. When your partner is finished ask whether there’s anything else. Do not rush them and summarise what you have heard to show that you have understood. Reflect back what they have said to you, appreciate how they feel, and make it clear that you understand their response.
Try to find a ‘win win’ solution – once you have both had your say and listened, you may find that there‘s nothing left to resolve, or you have discovered a solution that meets the needs of both people. Often the entire conflict can be about wanting to be heard or understood. However, obviously, there are some circumstances in which people have very different expectations. Try to find ways of developing ‘win win’ solutions in which both people's needs are taken into account. It can be difficult to find 'win win' with such incompatible aims.
You may have to agree to disagree, but respect each other’s differences. One suggestion is that after listening to each other, you write a list of issues and possible solutions. Each person can determine their own boundaries; then say what they are, and are not prepared to live with. After that you can try one solution for awhile, after which you can re-evaluate the situation and stick to it, or try something else.
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