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Allison Sylvia, Ph.D.
• February 12, 2024

Helping individuals and couples communicate better is a cornerstone of good therapy. Better communication sets people up for greater connection and stability in their lives. It’s no surprise then that there is a wide array of therapeutic approaches to guide clients toward better communication. Some of these therapy approaches are “evidence-based,” by which I mean they were developed as part of therapies that have gained substantial research evidence supporting their effectiveness. In this article I will walk you through some of my favorite evidence-based communication strategies.

Every challenge with communication looks a little different, has a distinct history, and each partner has a unique role and identity that shapes the communication pattern. For example, difficulty communicating may look like silence between partners for hours, days, or weeks. It could look like seemingly endless arguments that last until two in the morning. It may look like peace most of the time, and then explosive fights around a certain topic.

What unites the narratives of each couple’s challenge is that any breakdown in communication is painful. It leaves the connection between you and your partner feeling tenuous and brittle. When that connection is in jeopardy, it can be very helpful to have concrete strategies to navigate your way back to a safe, stable place. The list below outlines some of my favorite strategies to navigate back to connection. Of note, this is my take on these evidence-based strategies and concepts, and how I apply them in my therapy work. Please see citations provided to explore the brilliant ways the developers and researchers of these approaches describe these concepts.

1. It’s deeper than you think.

In couples therapy, I tell my clients that an argument about, for example, “the dishes” is never just about “the dishes.” How do you know when something “deeper” is afoot? Maybe you’re discussing this daily task with your partner and all of a sudden, you go cold, quiet, want to step away. Or the alternative, you feel your temperature rising and you NEED your partner to understand your feelings in that moment. When you feel your emotion is out of proportion with the situation at hand, you know something deeper in going on. If it was just about “the dishes” there wouldn’t be a 5-alarm fire going on in your head. When emotions are bigger than seems “reasonable” in a given situation, there are meaningful fears/hurts/histories behind those feelings. It’s important not to dismiss these emotional reactions as unreasonable, but instead turn inward and ask yourself (the way a friend would ask you - think Mr. Rogers’ tone, if that’s not too silly): what’s going on right now that’s making this so hard for me? What’s the “deeper” issue?

2. To understand the deeper issue, examine your thoughts.

Our minds make meaning of things right away. When you and your partner start discussing “the dishes” and you feel your temperature rise, there is meaning in those emotions. Here are some examples of the thoughts you may have when you and your partner discuss the dishes:

“I hate talking about the dishes,” then “It feels like I never do enough,” then “I remember when we used to have fun together,” then “Maybe the best days of our relationship are behind us,” then “I don’t really think they value me”

These thoughts go along with some difficult feelings of disconnection, hurt, and fear. Once you understand these thoughts, it can be helpful to express these fears and concerns to your partner (see #3 for how to do this well, using “I” statements). When you share hurts and fears with your partner, it’s likely they can provide you with other ways of looking at the situation or can give you more information. After a discussion with your partner, you may learn that your partner thinks…

“I hate the dishes too,” or “I value you a lot,” or “I want to have more fun with you”

Sharing with your partner could help you find other ways to see the situation that may not have been clear to you if you hadn’t checked in with them.

3. Use the Speaker Listener technique to share thoughts and feelings, especially when things get tense.

Sharing your thoughts and feelings seems like a no brainer - but it’s actually quite hard. It’s easy to default to expressing anger (e.g., yelling, defensiveness, criticizing) or pulling back into avoidance (e.g., going quiet, avoiding our partners gaze or presence) when someone we love hurts us, even in minor ways. Most of us were taught that this is the way to handle conflict, or we weren’t shown a different way. The Speaker-Listener technique is a sure-fire way to create a safer, more productive space for communication. Here are the steps:

  1. Start it up. When you sense that a conversation has shifted into something a little tense or sensitive, you can prompt the use of this strategy with your partner by saying “can we use Speaker-Listener for a little bit?” Once you decide to use it together, then decide who will be the Speaker.
  2. Speaker speaks. The Speaker is the person who is talking. The Speaker tries to use “I” statement instead of “you” statements (e.g., “I feel hurt when” instead of “you always hurt me when”). The Speaker shares what they are thinking and feeling. The Speaker should break what they want to say down into approximately 15-30 second chunks, you might lose your Listener if you go on for too long.
  3. Listener listens and paraphrases. The Listener is the person who is focused on understanding the Speaker. The Listener is NOT focused on what they are going to say as a rebuttal to whatever the Speaker is saying. The Listener listens intently because at the end the Listener’s job is to paraphrase what the Speaker has said. Sometimes I tell clients that the most basic way to think about this is that you are acting like a mirror to your partner. Mirror back to them what they said instead of rebutting or sharing your thoughts. This can be tough, so Speakers remember to have patience with your Listener. After you paraphrase, check in with your partner by saying something like “did I get that right?”
  4. Clarification and additional paraphrasing as needed. After hearing the Listener’s paraphrase, the Speaker might offer a clarification “yes thank you some (or most) of that was right, I want to clarify one part…” Each time the Speaker speaks and pauses to check for understanding, the Listener will paraphrase.
  5. Role reversal. Once the Speaker has been able to speak and been paraphrased approximately 3-4 times, the roles reverse. The Listener becomes the Speaker, the Speaker becomes the Listener, and you start the process over. You can swap the roles as much as needed and use this strategy ideally until you feel the tension start to come down a bit.
  6. Practice. Easy-peasy right? Wrong. It can take a little bit of time to get the hang of this strategy and can feel clunky and awkward at first. When I work on it with couples around sensitive topics it can take weeks, with my moderation, for them to consistently use it when conversations get tense. I often tell couples to practice Speaker-Listener around “safe” topics that don’t feel as tense or sensitive. If you practice when things are not tense, it will be much easier to use when temperatures start to rise.

4. Time out - like a football team, not a toddler. 

Ok, you tried to look “deeper” to figure out why this conflict hurts so much. And you tried using Speaker-Listener to communicate with your partner. And it’s not going anywhere – you two are spinning your wheels and starting to go “round and round.” Often in these situations, one or both partners becomes so angry or upset that they begin fall back into patterns that don’t look at all like the nice and tidy Speaker-Listener routine. This is a good time to take a timeout. Here are the steps:

  1. Notice you need a timeout. Old communication patterns happen! Don’t panic. First, take stock of the earliest signs of your anger (e.g., heart rate rising, tension in your body, shutting down, speaking a little more loudly). Catch those signs of anger as early as you can. Remember that being angry is not a bad thing. Anger tells you that whatever is coming up is important to you. You need time to look at that anger and figure out what it wants to communicate. How do you do that? You take a time out!
  2. Call a timeout for yourself. You call a timeout for yourself, not on your partner. Think of these timeouts exactly like a football team’s time out. In football, a team calls a timeout because they need to regroup and figure out the best game plan going forward. Good teams strategically use time outs to strengthen their game.  To do this, you say to your partner two things (1) “I need to take a time out,” and (2) “Let’s meet back in this room in 15 minutes to talk more about this.” Both elements need to be stated for this to work – time outs are not for you to walk off the field, they are for you to find a better strategy and stay in the game. You need to set a time (preferably within 15-30 minutes) and place to come back to the discussion.
  3. Partner agrees. Partner communicates some form of agreement to the terms, and you separate for a little while.
  4. Use the time to strengthen your game – and the objective of this game is connection and understanding, if you’re focused on winning the argument, you’re losing. When you are on a time-out, you take time to calm yourself (e.g., deep breaths, take a walk, pet the dog, watch a funny video) and remind yourself that the goal is to be connected with your partner. This is not the time to lawyer up and create a better defense for your argument. Remember your goal with your partner is to be understood and to understand them, since that will be most likely to restore your connection.
  5. Time out is only as good as time in. When the specified time is up – both partners come back to the conversation as agreed. You try to understand each other again, hopefully with a better frame of mind. You can call multiple timeouts in a row if needed. But remember, the goal is not always to be perfectly understood, or come to a perfect solution, rather the goal when you come back is to understand one another a little better, so that you can have more connection, even if the truce you come to is not perfect.

5. If you’re on the same channel, things get a lot easier.

Sometimes one person wants their partner to listen and provide empathy, but the other partner wants to problem-solve. Notice these two “channels,” (1) sharing or (2) problem solving. When you come up to your partner you can say “I want to talk about work, and I’m on the sharing channel right now,” that way your partner knows you don’t want to problem solve. Alternatively, if your partner does not offer up-front what channel they are on, ask for clarity! Say something like “are you on the sharing channel or problem-solving channel right now?” If you are both on the same channel, you become united in your goal for the conversation and things go much more smoothly.

As with all advice – take what feels helpful for you and your relationship and leave the rest. If you do want to put some of these into practice, try introducing this to your partner with the phrase “I came across this article with a communication strategy I thought was interesting…” There’s your opening! please know that this is advice outside of the context of therapy, I do not know the specific challenges facing your relationships and if you have concerns about your relationship, please seek therapy for hands-on expert guidance. Happy communicating!

Allison Sylvia, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Clinical Fellow

Dr. Sylvia helps clients gain a deeper understanding of themselves and empowers them to make the changes they want to see in their lives. Dr. Sylvia received her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Cincinnati and completed her clinical internship at the Cincinnati VAMC, where she received specialty training in trauma-focused intervention for individuals and couples.

References & Citations

Dattilio, F. M. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy with couples and families: A comprehensive guide for clinicians. Guilford Press.

Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage: A deluxe revised edition of the classic best-seller for enhancing marriage and preventing divorce. John Wiley & Sons.

Monson, C. M., & Fredman, S. J. (2012). Cognitive-behavioral conjoint therapy for PTSD: Harnessing the healing power of relationships. Guilford Press.