Gudrun Zomerland, MFT, CCPS
and Family Therapist
405 Chinn Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
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Communication Skills for Couples - 101
Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
More and more I hear couple therapists talk about that it is of no use to teach people communication skills because in the heat of an argument rationality
flies out of the window and therefore those skills too. I think this is a
dangerous position. If we expect people with severe impulse control issues such
as batterers to become masters over their emotions, then we are certainly
moving within the realm of the possible to expect the same of more ordinary
folks. To expect less does not serve you, the one looking to change things in
Communication skills are like driving skills; they are designed in accordance with the tool at hand. The tool we human beings have which enables us to communicate effectively is our body. The first task of being an effective communicator, therefore, is to get to know ones body just like you get to know your car in order to drive it well. We have to feel the different parts and
label what is going on in those parts. Many people ignore or don't know the
physical sensations of their feelings. Often this is due to the fact that many
of us were either trained to ignore our feelings or experienced such prolonged
or severe states of fear, sadness or anger during our years of growing up that
we simply learned to dissociate from those feelings and therefore from our
bodies. In order to communicate to another person who we are, what is going on
with us and what we need, it is necessary to unlearn the tuning out process and
to feel the sensations in our bodies.
Just like gasoline (and hopefully in the future electricity or another
environmentally friendly energy source) makes a car engage its different parts
in order to move forward, so our body has its fuel. It is called breath. Our
breath enlivens every cell, which not only helps every part and organ function
better, but it also helps our physical awareness. Once we tune into our body,
we can ask some useful questions: "What does my heart feel like? Does it
flutter? Does it feel like it has a steel band around it? What does my stomach
feel like? Do I feel sick? Is it like butterflies in there? Is it tight?" Thus
we can make an inventory of our vehicle, the body. All those physical
sensations can be described or labeled with feeling words.
When we know what we feel, we can figure out the underlying needs that we need to respond to. If I feel afraid, for instance, I know I have a need for safety or for courage. If I feel sad, I may I have a need to talk or to cry, alone or with another person. If I feel angry, I know I have to make sure that I don't hurt someone or myself with my anger, and I may have to take time out before talking about the issue. All these different choices depend on your personality make-up and your preferences. Conscious breathing helps us through the assessment and problem solving processes.
Once we can describe what is going on with us and know that we can take care of ourselves, the next task is to relate our truth to our partner. The biggest question that arises here is: When? Just like we watch other drivers on the road and take them into consideration before we make a move, we need to take
our partner into consideration before we tell him or her what is going on for
us. This becomes challenging when very strong emotions are present, because we
want to push ahead and blurt them out. But even if you are in a hurry driving
down the freeway, you don't move into another lane without looking first and
making sure there is room for you. Many couple therapists now want us to
believe that most of us do not possess the skill of self-control. Even though
road rage is on the rise, it is not the norm. If that were true, driving would
be a far more dangerous activity than it is. I believe, that you and I have the
ability to time our actions.
Signaling to our partner that something is up for us, that we want to merge
into their lane, so to speak, is the most important function to prepare our
partner to receive us. If your partner has no room for you, don't move! If you
choose to move anyhow, a crash is inevitable. Even though many of us do drive
aggressively, it really is not the best way. Driving is a much more enjoyable
experience if we do it with courtesy, a sense of humor, and patience.
Communicating in relationships works much better with just those ingredients, too. It is easy to become impatient when you have approached (signaled) your partner that you want something and they don't listen. But it is possible that they are preoccupied, tired, or feeling feelings they don't know what to do with. Find out from them when a good time to talk is. Meanwhile find
constructive ways to deal with your own feelings.
If all this sounds easier said than done, rest assured that you are not the
only one feeling that way. Even with a lot of practice and under the best of
circumstances, we sometimes fail in any of the above steps and a clash with our
partner is the result. It is a good practice for both of you to debrief after
an incident in order to see what can be learned and what each of you could have
done differently. Sometimes, however, even with emotional intelligence
communication remains difficult. If that is so for you, please seek help,
receive coaching and look for possible hidden reasons of why relating with one
another is conflict-ridden.
Suggested Readings on Communication for Couples:
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