As a Christian counselor, I often find that couples come in because they’re having trouble communicating. When people are in conflict, their tendency is to over-focus on content: who did and said what. While content is an important guide, pointing to deeper issues in the relationship through what couples do, the patterns and feelings of the couple’s interactions – their process – is more important.
Here’s why couples therapy is important: couples who learn how to talk process with one another do their best work after finishing therapy. They have built the communication skills necessary to work through difficult marital conversations in a way that builds intimacy, strengthens bonds, and gets to the root of issues.
In this article series, I’ll be walking through several important concepts and communication skills from a book/training series called Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler). These are proven skill-builders for learning to maintain healthy dialogue during difficult conversations. Research shows that helping couples learn to hold crucial conversations effectively reduces the chance of unhappiness or breakups by more than half.
Skill 1: Check Your Motives
Three things are usually happening when a conversation turns crucial: 1) emotions are strong; 2) stakes are high (the outcome matters a lot); and 3) there are differing opinions. The first important thing to note here is that when these three conditions are present, the first component to degrade isn’t the couple’s behavior – it’s their motives.
Suddenly motives switch from creating shared meanings and helpful solutions, to desiring one of three things: winning, punishing, or keeping the peace. The creators of Crucial Conversations have observed that people tend to have a consistent pattern of using one of these tactics more than the others.
For those who tend toward winning, the conversation starts going south when motives change from resolving a problem to defending themselves or correcting the other person’s facts. When the other partner argues back (presses in like a military counterstrike), the entire conversation shifts to the simple objective of winning an argument. Personally, I refer to the state of trying to win as a fight.
Those who most often turn to punishing are marked by their method for gaining the upper hand or developing leverage/power over the other person. Punishers verbally harm, shame, or discredit the other person, so that their target no longer has a credible voice. I refer to this focus on harming the other as war. “Launch all missiles!”
On the other hand, there are those who – when conflict arises – focus on getting it to stop. Instead of continuing a healthy dialogue (which often includes a keen level of tension), their motive shifts to keeping the peace. This is just as destructive to relationships as the previous two motives.
Those who ‘keep the peace’ tend to shut down, silence their own voice, and simply try to appease others. Ultimately they are “accepting the certainty of bad results to avoid the possibility of uncomfortable conversation.” In essence, peacekeepers choose their own personal safety or emotional comfort over actually having the conversations that will move a relationship forward.
I find ‘peace keeping’ to be a bit of a misnomer, since the conflict in the current conversation implies that there is no peace to keep. I call this avoiding or passivity, and I agree on its destructive power – being unheard is the road to resentment and contempt!
Where do you see these motives in your conversations? Which motive does your partner tend to go to the most? Think about it for a second, if you would – what motive do you tend toward? Do you often use a combo, perhaps, switching tactics when the first didn’t work?
Let’s take it to the next level! Next time you find yourself in a conversation that is crucial (emotions strong, stakes high, opinions different), go ahead and just take a minute to step back from the conversation (in your head is fine) and ask yourself a good hard question: “What does my behavior tell me about what my motives really are?” Don’t overthink it – just observe your own behavior. Notice whether you are trying to win, punish, or just keep the peace. This can be difficult in the moment, but extremely valuable for personal growth.
In my next article, I’ll be sharing several important questions to ask yourself in order to mentally, emotionally, and relationally get the conversation back on the right track.
If find yourself acting your worst in conversations that turn crucial, practicing this skill should help you get out of the natural cycles of reactivity. Couples therapy can also be an effective means of naming and addressing unhealthy communication patterns. I find that couples who come in together and develop communication skills in session have a relational advantage – they have shared vocabulary and a clear mutual understanding of the issues.
That said, if you have recurring communication issues with someone (a partner, spouse, family member, coworker, etc.) but don’t feel comfortable with coming in together, individual therapy is also an option. I have heard dozens of clients report better communication with the people who matter to them because of work they are doing on their own.
If you are interested in working on communication from a Christian strengths-based perspective, I offer both individual, family, and couples therapy at my offices in Bothell and Downtown Seattle.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
“Howitzer Training,” courtesy of U.S. Army, flickr.com, Creative Commons 2.0 License; “Peace,” courtesy of Gordon, flickr.com, Creative Commons 2.0 License; “The Purpose of Argument,” courtesy of Jon Collier, flickr.com, Creative Commons 2.0 License