How To Listen During Conflict: Tips From a Couples Therapist

by Jan 31, 2017

Listening, It’s Not as Easy as You Think

What do couples who come to therapy often fail to do in the beginning of their treatment? Most couples therapists will tell you that 95% of their cases involve couples who are looking to improve their communication. As a therapist, it is my job to see what it is that the couple cannot see, that they have a pattern of communicating that ends in hurt feelings, gridlock, and/or withdrawal. My job is to see this, and help the couple see it, and get them to see what it is that they are doing that contributes to this negative pattern, and then change it. Easier said than done right? That’s why they pay us the “big bucks.”

So what do couples who end up in therapy often fail to do? In my 5 years of experience, there are general trends that I’ve noticed, and most paths lead to a failure of expression of needs. We are taught how to ask for what we need (or not ask) in our family growing up. Many times a partner will criticize, or verbally attack their partner which leads to hurt feelings, defensiveness, counter attacks, or withdrawal. Underneath this exchange was an important need that wasn’t getting met. The key here is to recognize what it is that we are needing from our partner, and then express it in a clear and direct way using language that will not put our partner on the defensive.

Why Is It So Hard to Communicate?

Why Is It So Hard to Communicate?

One of the most nefarious culprits that sabotage important couple conversations is threat. This threat that we experience can occur when our partner says something that we interpret as cutting, or disparaging, or blaming, or distancing. When we feel threatened, our heart rate changes, our breathing changes, stress hormones begin pumping into our blood stream, and the beautiful human body system that evolution has given us takes its course. What do we need to know or do when this happens? There are cognitive and physiological answers to this question. For the scope of this article, I’m going to focus here on the physiological interventions one can use.

Belly Breathing, aka, Diaphragmatic Breathing, aka, Deep Breathing, is a technique that can prove effective at keeping ourselves in the conversation and able to have the conversation that needed to happen instead of the fight that buried it. When I ask my clients to use this technique, I remind them not force it, even though they are doing something new, and it will take some conscious control, it is still important to allow the breath to come naturally. When we can engage this technique, we can reverse the effects of stress on our body and on our thinking, and consequently on our role in the conversation.

I am so happy to see Sesame Street is teaching the next generation this important skill!

Notice, Breath, Express

We first must be aware that we are becoming dysregulated in our breathing. Sometimes it can be helpful to pay attention to the temperature of our cheeks and/or forehead, if calf-muscles or shoulders are tense, odds are we are in “threat mode”. Some people who would prefer to not go into their body this way can choose to pay attention to their thoughts. Perhaps they notice that their mind is racing, or looking for the partner’s opportunity to “pounce.” This can clue us into our selves being dysregulated.

Once we notice that we are tense, or beginning to feel emotionally threatened, we can then engage in this technique. Here’s a video of how it’s done:

After we’ve rediscovered the safety of feeling more grounded and centered in our thinking, and after we feel calm to participate in this conversation, now it’s time to express feelings and needs. One helpful tidbit, is that before we express our own feelings and needs, it can be helpful to FIRST reflect back what we see and hear our partner saying, and listen for the feelings and needs in what they are saying. This might sound something like this:

Susan: “All you want to do is spend time with your friends, it’s like you’ve forgotten that I’m even here.”

Oscar: “I can see that I’ve really upset you by making these plans. I think I’m hearing that you feel shut out, or maybe even ignored by me, that I’m making others a priority, or putting my friends first. I never meant to hurt you. I guess this conversation means we aren’t spending enough quality time together.

Oscar is validating Susan’s feelings, and listened for her unmet need – “I don’t get enough time with you.” Even if Oscar may have thoughts of getting defensive, or is tempted to fight back and talk about how unreasonable Susan is being, this way of listening and reflecting back what our partner is saying can do wonders to any relationship. Once Susan feels that Oscar fully understands where she is coming from, then she will likely be more receptive to Oscar when he expresses his feelings.

Of course this is merely a fictional example, and your relationship might benefit from speaking to a trained professional. For more information, I’d recommend beginning at our Frequently Asked Questions page.

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to Your Couples Therapist Blog.
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