Save That Relationship!

Just took a quick peek at a piece from and wanted to excerpt  my favorite part, as follows:

So how do you increase understanding during conflict? Here are seven suggestions for how to think and act to do so.

Older couple

1.Instead of asserting your own point of view, try to take your partner’s perspective. Make it your goal to understand why your partner feels the way they do.
2.Avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
3.Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Assume that their intentions are not malicious.
4.Take a moment to reflect on your partner’s positive traits. You can even try some gratitude-inducing techniques.
5.Think of you and your partner as a team, rather than opponents. Your goal is to figure out together why you do not see eye-to-eye and find a solution; it is not to win the fight and prove your partner wrong.
6.Recognize that it won’t always be easy to follow these suggestions, especially if your partner isn’t playing by the same rules.
7.Give yourself a mantra to repeat when you start feeling angry to help you remember your goal—even something as simple as “be understanding.”

Some of the best stuff I have learned about working with couples trying to get the wrinkles out of relationships I learned from a couple who I worked with for a long time despite the high level of conflict in their relationship. I used to refer to them as the  “Killeachothers.” In fact, progress for them meant that they no longer engaged in mutual combat, but merely verbal conflict. They had one of the common problems that couples bring to counseling (from a process point of view): he wanted her to take care of her diabetes better and she wanted him to work on his substance abuse issues. They didn’t do many of the things on the list above. Criticism and defensiveness were big with them, and they frequently acted like opponents. But some of the other things they could do, such as reflecting on the other’s positive traits, and recognizing that change is hard, and they went back & forth on giving each other the benefit of the doubt versus thinking the other was being malicious. But after being brutally stuck for a long time, the thing that really got them moving toward change was a very simple communication drill. I will give it, but it is almost impossible to follow without a third party to act as a communication coach. It is as follows:

  1. First person says something in 25 words or less, but no conjunctions.  For people not into grammar, think of it as no ifs, ands, ors, or buts.
  2. Second person repeats it back, either verbatim or as understood.
  3. First person confirms that the message was correctly understood. (if not, go to step one– see below)
  4.  Second person then responds to the message in the initial format of 25 words or less, no conjunctions.
  5. First person repeats it back, either verbatim or as understood.
  6. Second person confirms message understood.
  7. repeat steps one through six to continue.

note to #3– If the first person says their message was not understood, they have to restate what they said, still using 25 word format, or otherwise clarify the initial statement in 25 words or less using no conjunctions.

People who are familiar with active listening will recognize this as being a very carefully controlled version. It works to smoke out people’s assumptions, interpretations, extrapolations, and plain old distortions. If we think of a normal conversation as being like a movie, this is a way to take it frame by frame– and see where things start to go wrong. The original post from Greater Good points out that people can have a high level of conflict, but if they feel the other understands them, the relationship can still work (my words).

If you want a simpler protocol to follow to reduce conflict & bad vibes while arguing, you can follow the one step laid down by Miss Manners (and a host of others):

  1. Don’t Interrupt. I would expound on this, but do I really need to?

Image from


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in arguing, behavioral health, communication, Couple communication, Couples and relationships, fighting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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