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Communication Guide for Couples

When we find ourselves stuck in negative patterns of emotional escalation and dysregulation with our romantic partners, it can be useful to learn (or revisit) the basics of honest, direct, thoughtful, and kind communication.

Following is a description of the three stages of a healthy conflict resolution conversation, and the communication skills needed to effectively navigate each stage. Note: Although this guide was designed for couples, the skills can easily be translated to difficult conversations with friends, family members, and co-workers.

There are two roles, Expresser and Responder. Each person in the dyad should take turns, one at a time, assuming each role.

Stage 1: Expresser’s Statement

  • “I feel…” (State your feeling)

  • “when you…” (State the other person’s behavior)

  • “I would like…” (State what you want to happen)

Expresser Skills

1) State your feelings and needs with “I” statements, not “You” statements. Avoid generalizations (“You

always…” “You never…”)

Say: “I feel anxious when you don’t call me when you are out with your friends.”

Don’t say: “You never call me when you hang out with them!”

2) Be specific about what you are asking for.

Say: “I would like you to call me once at around 10pm the next time

you are out.”

Don’t Say: “I want you to prioritize me over your friends. I want more attention”.

3) Talk about the positive feelings that you have about the other person.

Say: “I miss hanging out with you on Friday nights. I always feel closer to you after we talk on the phone”.

Don’t Say: “When you do this, I can’t even remember why I’m still dating you”.

Stage 2: Responder’s Statement

1) Clarify: “Are you saying…”

2) Reflect: “You seem to be feeling…”

3) Validate: “It must be difficult for you when…”

Responder Skills

1) Active Listening

Take in her mood.

Lean in.

Mirror her expression.

Nod your head, make brief utterances (um mm…yes). Maintain eye contact.

2) Show Empathy

Concentrate on your partner’s emotional reactions.

Put yourself in her place.

Think about how you would be feeling in her situation.

3) Ask Clarifying Questions

Make sure you correctly understand your partner.

Readily accept any correction your partner makes to your interpretations and summarizations.

Say: “Are you saying that you feel like I don’t care about you when I don’t call you?”

4) Restate/Reflect

Restate what you hear your partner saying in your own words.

Tell your partner what you think she is feeling/experiencing.

Say: “You seem to be feeling worried that I don’t think about you when I’m with my friends.”

5) Validate

Show your partner that you understand what they are thinking and feeling, and assure them that it makes sense to you.

Say: “It makes sense that you feel anxious when I don’t call you when I’m out late at night. It must be difficult when you have no idea where I am or you're wondering if I am spending time with other women.”

Stage 3: Problem Solving

1) Focus on the specifics:

Who will do what? How often? When and where?

2) What could get in the way?

Avoid future disappointments by discussing circumstances that might make the agreement difficult to follow.

3) Follow-up.

Set up a time in the near future to follow-up on the plan. Discuss how well the plan is working, and make any needed changes at that time.

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