Effective communication and “fair fighting”

I wrote in my last post that I’d share my “fair fighting rules” for couples in a later post. I’m feeling on a roll with the topic of effective communication, so here goes. Arguments inevitably arise in all long-term committed relationships. They can be constructive or destructive. As a therapist, I coached individuals and couples in communicating effectively and avoiding destructive disputes. The successful use of these guidelines depends on good faith between the persons involved, meaning that neither partner tries to dominate the discussion, and both want there to be a positive outcome, based on honest communication. In honest, good faith disputes between equal partners, there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. (In game theory an I win/you lose interaction is known as a “zero sum game.”)  It’s possible to “win all the battles, but lose the war.” If you follow some basic rules, a disagreement is more likely to lead to a win/win outcome.

(1) Be mindful. Stay in the here-and-now and be aware of your emotions. (2) No attacks, threats or generalized judgments. Easy to say, but if you’re both mindful and acting in good faith, you can avoid these traps. (3) Be an active listener, with one person talking at a time. Don’t interrupt. Each of you gets to express yourself, each of you wants to be understood. (4) One topic at a time. Don’t drag in other issues or stuff from the past. (5) Try to express yourself in I-statements. You-statements, especially generalizations, tend to lead to defensiveness and denials. If you say, “I think/feel/want _____,” the other person can’t contradict you, can’t say “No you don’t.” I-statements invite understanding and empathy. (6) Avoid generalizations, often characterized by “always” and “never,” or  “should.” If you’re critical of something about your partner, try to frame it constructively. (7) Be assertive. Clearly state what you want/don’t want, or what you mean. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind. (8) Don’t miss opportunities to validate, or to acknowledge your understanding of, your partners feelings or point of view. What’s your common ground? Try to understand your partner’s position and express any empathy you may feel. (9) Avoid questions-that-aren’t-really-questions. They’re usually characterized by “why”s, such as “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” This is actually a statement (“You never listen to me.”) phrased as if it were a question. There is no answer to this emotionally-loaded pseudo-question that would satisfy the asker, because it’s not really a question. (10) If appropriate, turn the tables. Ask, “What do you think we need to do?”

I had the professional privilege of working in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program for two years. DBT programs are designed to treat people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The program I worked in was run by Dr. Shari Manning, who studied with Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT. I spoke briefly with Dr. Linehan at a professional conference years ago and mentioned that I’d worked in a DBT program under Shari’s supervision, to which she replied, “You’re a lucky man.” And indeed I was. My participation in the DBT program at Columbia Area Mental Health Center was a great opportunity for professional development. Working in a DBT program requires adherence to a model and methodology as precise and rigorous as psychoanalysis. You have to follow fixed protocols and work within a peer consultation team that supports and guides your work with this very challenging population.

I’ll get into DBT in more detail over time, but suffice it to say for now, DBT programs teach specific skills to people who frequently have difficulty with relationships. For two years I co-led DBT skills training groups, and worked individually with clients in the program, coaching them in the use of the skills. One of the skills modules is interpersonal effectiveness. For now I won’t go into the acronym DEAR MAN that DBT uses as a mnemonic device, but will briefly describe the process that it outlines. First, you strive to be mindful and stay in the here-and-now. If necessary, you describe the situation or set the context. You express your feelings and/or opinions, then assert yourself, asking for what you want or saying “no” to something you don’t want. Next you try to say something positive, if only to express your appreciation that you were listened to.

An interpersonally effective communication might go something like this: “We’ve been friends for a while now and you’ve helped me when I needed it. I value your friendship and I hope we stay friends. But I can’t hang out with you when you’re drinking anymore. You know I’m going to meetings and trying to stay clean and sober. It’s not that you get obnoxious when you’re drinking, like some people. You can be lots of fun when you’re high, but I just can’t risk getting triggered and relapsing. You don’t drink during the day, so we can meet for lunch. Or if you want to try quitting again, maybe we can go to meetings together, and hang out over coffee afterward. You’re really a special person and I want you in my life, but my sobriety has got to come first.”

The speaker  here is attempting to preserve the relationship, but setting clear boundaries. She’s specifying the conditions under which they’ll meet in the future, without attacking or judging or blaming. In some interpersonal exchanges, a willingness to compromise is called for, but not in this case. Whether or not the relationship survives, the communication will have been effective. Effective communication is a learnable skill set.

Client-centered therapy and active listening

Dr. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy was one of the major therapies within the human potential movement. I had the good fortune to meet him briefly when he was the keynote speaker at a convocation of the Association for Humanistic Education, held at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) in 1976. I’d just listened to his address and then joined my ex-wife, Doris, who was selling her hand-crafted jewelry from a blanket on the lawn outside the education building. Dr. Rogers came out of the building and Doris’ display caught his eye. He was being escorted by a faculty member, but stopped to look. I can’t remember anything that was said between the three of us, but I was in awe of the man and couldn’t believe I was actually talking to him. He bought a piece of Doris’ jewelry as a gift, so I’ve subsequently made the claim that Carl Rogers helped put me through grad school.

Rogerian therapists don’t make analytic interpretations, or provoke authentic responses, or recommend goals to the client. Goals are established by the client, who does a lot more talking than listening in therapy sessions. A good Rogerian therapist is an active listener, who strives to understand the client’s sense of self, interpersonal boundaries, and experience of being-in-the-world by carefully listening to his words. The therapist might ask clarifying questions, but mostly listens. Actively.

After listening to a detailed account of a client’s issues with her dominating mother, the therapist doesn’t respond with an interpretation, but reflects on his understanding of her experience. “It sounds like every time you’re around your mother you end up feeling angry and worthless. I also heard you say that you keep having intrusive thoughts about your mother dying in an accident, and you feel terribly guilty about having these thoughts.” If the therapist has accurately and non-judgmentally reflected the essence of what the client was trying to express, this usually promotes increased trust and a fuller disclosure on the subject at hand. When the therapist is on the mark, the client knows that the therapist cares, listens carefully, doesn’t judge him, and seems to understand. If the therapist misses the mark, the client will usually let him know right away.

Often in everyday life we only give part of our attention to what others tell us, or are distracted by our own thoughts or reactions. Listening is often a passive act. Active listening means giving our full attention to what we’re being told, without allowing our thoughts to distract us. It’s a kind of mindfulness. In a different arena, music appreciation, certain kinds of music demand more of the listener than others. To fully appreciate chamber music, or a sitar raga, or jazz by Coltrane, you have to quiet your own thoughts and give your full attention to the music. In the interpersonal arena, sometimes we need someone who cares enough to listen actively when we have something important to say, whether that person is a therapist, a pastor, a spouse, a family member, or a trusted friend.

Active listening is a learnable skill. I started learning it in grad school. Even when I was working in a therapeutic mode other than client-centered therapy, I was an active listener. I’ve always believed that I owed it to each client to give them my full attention. Sometimes I’d do a brief meditation between clients, to clear my head. Like most things, you learn active listening by practicing it. You have to learn to suspend your own thoughts, and you do that by simply noticing any thought that intrudes on your active listening. Like a stray cat, if you don’t feed it, it goes away. Focus on listening without judging. You can practice listening actively to classical music or jazz, too. Learning to listen actively to complex music is its own reward. Active listening gets easier with practice.

When a parent would come in complaining that their child used to confide in them, but stopped, I’d coach them in active listening and non-judgmental reflection. When a child feels understood and validated, she develops higher levels of  trust and is more willing to talk about what’s important in her life. Learning to be an active listener will give you a tool that some therapists use to establish trust and encourage disclosure. It will make you a better parent, friend or spouse. When you listen carefully and reflect back what you’ve heard accurately and non-judgmentally, the person you’ve been listening to knows that (1) you care enough to (2) really hear them (3) without judging them and (4) you seem to understand and accept what they’re going through. Everyone (other than sociopaths) wants to be understood and validated, and you can help people you care about feel accepted as the unique person they are. In terms of personal growth, Carl Rogers  taught that self-acceptance is the fertile ground in which the seeds of growth can flourish.