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.

Metacommunication and boundary setting

In a previous post I wrote about metacommunication as a concept in communications theory. It’s the idea that every verbal communication in a relationship works on two levels: the message content, and as a means of defining (or re-defining) the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceeded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you _____.” This kind of metacommunication starts early in our development. When a rebellious three-year-old says to a parent, “I don’t have to if I don’t want to!” he’s testing the limits, attempting to re-define the relationship as one in which he has the power. When the parent replies, “Oh yes you do!” she’s re-affirming her definition that she, as a parent, has the power in the relationship.

Metacommunication has another meaning in the realm of interpersonal communication. Two people in a relationship metacommunicate when they talk about the way they talk, communicate about their communication. It’s a good way to address boundary issues when they arise, whether with a friend or spouse, or in therapy. “How are we doing?” is an open-ended way to initiate metacommunication in a long-term romantic relationship.  The invitation to metacommunicate by one of the partners in the relationship has led to the early, easy resolution of many a misunderstanding or relationship conflict. When two people metacommunicate in good faith, they usually come out of the discussion with a shared definition, or re-definition, of the nature of the relationship and its boundaries.

Here are some examples of metacommunications: “I don’t feel comfortable when you talk that way.” “Hey, can we come up with a ‘time out’ signal for when we’re both too angry to talk?” “You seem to be easily annoyed lately.” “I wish you’d stick to the issue and not bring up old stuff.” Metacommunications can also be positive: “I really like the way we handled that.” “We’re getting better at avoiding silly arguments.”

The clearer the boundaries in a relationship, the less likely that conflicts and power struggles will come about. Boundaries can involve issues of personal space, preferences regarding communication habits and styles, performance expectations, kinds of preferred touching, standards for personal disclosure, sexual boundaries, and many other issues – especially in intimate, committed relationships. People who can metacommunicate in good faith spare themselves and their partners unnecessary conflicts.

Obviously, some people are better than others at setting and maintaining boundaries. Assertive people can more easily set boundaries and confront people who cross them. People pleasers and shy or passive people might find it hard to deal with people who cross their boundaries. Assertiveness is, to some degree, a learnable skill.

Metacommunication only works to improve communication in a relationship if both parties are honest with one another and sincerely want a positive outcome. The words “always” and “never” are seldom helpful, and the use of I-statements can facilitate the process. Almost anything that can be expressed in a you-statement can be re-framed as an I-statement. Open-ended I-statements  (“I wish we went out more often.”) are easier to take in than absolute you-statements (“You never want to go out anymore.”) I-statements can be used to express anything in a metacommunication: I wish, I think, I feel, I expect, I love/hate, I want/need, I don’t like it when _____.

When people in long-term relationships don’t metacommunicate in good faith, the parties can get stuck in dysfunctional patterns, and problems can stack up. There can be frequent misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Important thoughts go unexpressed, important feelings are repressed, and intimacy suffers. In troubled marriages, learning to metacommunicate in good faith can break up logjams of misunderstandings and hurt or angry feelings. It’s a skill I taught to many couples in therapy, along with “rules for fair fighting.” I’ll cover those in a later post.