Helping you ... Helping yourself


By Lynne Foote

The single most consistent cause that brings couples into my office for counseling is that their communication has broken down and they are caught in a cycle of arguing and bitterness that is steadily wearing away the stability of their connection. In this article, I want to look at the dynamics of healthy communication and offer some guidelines for finding your way to mutual understanding.

There are two levels in any communication: content and process. Content relates to what is being said, and Process refers to how it is being said and includes nonverbal elements of the exchange. Often these two dynamics are in opposition and we end up feeling confused. For example, you ask your partner how their day has gone and they respond, “Fine.” But there is nothing “fine” about their tone of voice or the way their jaw is set and you sense that they are really feeling angry. Another level of this is you and your partner are arguing about paying the bills (content) but underneath the words there is a lot that is going unspoken (process). These feelings and assumptions, such as I don't trust him to keep my needs in mind when he decides how to spend our tax refund, are actually driving the process. When a conversation that seems simple and direct is getting bogged down, notice what happens when you shift the focus from the content to the process. Very often what happens is that the deeper, underlying issue comes to the surface. It might even be your own issue but the deeper meaning was not evident, even to you.

In a communication there are always two parts to every message: the sending and the receiving of the information. There are numerous ways that information gets miscommunicated. First the sender may not be clear in their message itself and might be sending mixed messages. Or the receiver may not interpret the information correctly for a variety of reasons including: they have been preparing their own message without fully listening to their partner; they are unwilling to accept a point of view that does not mesh with their particular view; or they have made an assumption without realizing that it is an assumption. There is a useful tool known as Active/Reflective Listening that is designed to minimize this problem. Here is how it works: Partner A makes a statement about something, then Partner B reflects back what he has heard using his own words. Partner A then either corrects him if what he has heard is flawed or acknowledges that he has heard her. Then Partner B can respond to what Partner A has said. This tool, although artificial and awkward at first, can eventually become second nature. It is an extremely useful technique for hot topics because it is designed to: slow down the conversation; keep the exchange on a single topic and prevent lengthy monologues; and perhaps most importantly, calm the nervous system because our bodies relax when we feel heard. This tool can also catch misunderstandings early in the conversation before they become full blown differences. It is important to remember that acknowledging what your partner said does not mean that you are agreeing with it.

There are also some useful guidelines for how we are delivering our message. We are more likely to feel satisfied with our exchanges when we foster an environment of trust, respect, and friendship. Trust means that I believe that I will be heard and understood; that you have something that is important for me to hear and understand; and that together we will get through whatever the issue is that we are facing. Respect means that we are equals in this exchange and both of us have points of view that are valid and true for each of us, and worthy of consideration. Friendship means that we remember our connection, even as we explore our differences and that we are in this together.

Trust, Respect, and Friendship grow when we follow these suggestions:

  • Use I statements, rather than blaming/finger pointing YOU statements;

  • Speak to the complaint/issue rather than name calling or shaming the other;

  • Keep the message short and to the point;

  • Watch tone of voice and other nonverbal messages and be congruent with words and actions;

  • Translate complaints and criticisms into requests;

  • Be part of the solution;

  • Do not interrupt or talk over the other person;

  • Lean into your partner's experience…be curious and open, rather than defensive and closed;

  • Don't take things so personally;

  • Don't bring up big issues at bedtime or as one of you is about to leave for work; and

  • Allow your partner's truth and experience to be different from your own.

When your communication is stuck, seeking Couple's Counseling can break the pattern. My role has often been one of mediator where I slow down the process so both sides can speak and be heard. And often I act as a translator because it can be easier to hear the same words coming from me than from an upset partner. In therapy, you can more clearly see the dance that you are in with your partner and learn ways to change the patterns that have not worked for either of you and move you out of that same old argument cycle that you may have been stuck in for years.

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.

Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987


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