“We Need Communication Tools!”

Friday, November 19th, 2010 at 2:13 pm

“We Need Communication Tools”

Part II

This is the second installment of a multi-part series spot-lighting some of the more common and complex, hard-to-break communication patterns most couples encounter at one time or another as they manage conflict.

Possessing the tools for building a house does not necessarily mean you know how to build.  Without construction knowledge the tools are all but useless.  Ditto with communication tools.

Upon closer examination, however, the term “communication tools” seems vague. The lexicon of the pop culture list of tools tells us to say what we mean,  mean what we say, be a good listener, recap what we heard, and ask questions.

Those are great ideas, but incomplete, in my opinion.  Nothing explains how to mold them for each specific couple.  Every couple needs to implement them in a way that considers their unique relationship dynamics.  In other words, the listening characteristics of one couple is likely to vary dramatically from those of another couple.  In scientific terms, every couple is an N of 1.


Beyond a vague set of general tools is a universe of guidelines.  The guidelines provide a framework for the flexibility to create tailored-to-fit-communication language for each couple, a hybrid, if you will.  The result is a communication language for your marriage that will differ significantly from my marriage.

Tailored-to-fit-communication provides couples an effective way to manage conflict, become more intimate, and to know each other and their respective selves with more dimension.

From here forward, the focus is on guidelines, not tools.

Within this framework each guide allows individual partner’s to consider their unique history, personality, desires, traits and disposition as they build their communication language.

(Note—the following is only an outline.  I will elaborate on each of the guides in the next post.)



The list begins with anatomy as our first guide.  Think body. We all wear one mouth and two ears. Those provide a direct visual reminder of the listening/talking ratio necessary for effective conflict management—2 to1—two ears, one mouth: double the listening over the talking.  If you’re math challenged, as am I, that means to listen more than talk.


Of equal importance is the guide of experience—that means the experience at the center of the conflict.  Talking about your experience will raise the odds of being understood.  Conversely, talking about your partner will increase the odds of being misunderstood.

Ability To Make Decisions

The next guide is your ability to make decisions.  Specifically, make the decision to talk about yourself rather than your partner.  That will be problematic for those who would rather blame, name call, accuse, or tell their partner what he/she is feeling and thinking.

On the other hand, a conscious decision to talk only about your self is a good decision.  Problem is, it is a very difficult decision to make because it is a decision to be vulnerable.


Coupled with experience is the desire guide—the desire to be understood, the desire to understand your partner, and ultimately the desire for intimacy.  The desire to be understood situates you to talk about yourself. However, revealing ones self in the service of being deeply understood often feels risky.  And that leads the next guideline—risk.


Risk often comes with fear, but also reward.  Fear may accompany the vulnerability involved with expressing ones own thoughts and feelings, not to mention talking responsibility for ones behavior.  The risk of humiliation, embarrassment and rejection is real.  But so are the rewards for taking such risks.

Possible rewards include living with a greater integrity, that fosters more trust from your partner, a more fulfilling sex life, a safer relationship environment, acceptance for who we are, and greater overall happiness.  Not bad.


Enter curiosity, an essential foundation for effective inquiry.   Without curiosity, understanding your partner’s experience is impossible.  Naturally, some forms of inquiry are less effective than others.

Inquisition, cross- examination, or interrogation, are thinly disguised forms of intimidation, and therefore ineffective.  Conversely, questions from a genuinely curious partner tend to be open ended, follow the speaker’s lead, and promote a safe discussion environment.


This next guide is related to physics— and here is how it works:  If you want to be understood, talking about your partner won’t get it done.  The metaphor:  you cannot be in two places at once.

It makes sense.  If you visited your physician, you would   talk about your experience, the physician would listen, ask questions, eventually understand your problem, i.e., understand your experience.

If you want to be understood you will have to talk about yourself.

Pattern Recognition

Our next guide is communication pattern recognition.  All couples have multiple patterns of communication.  We use different patterns for different situations.  Conflict is one of those situations.

Develop the ability to recognize, identify, and describe the pattern you and your partner are mired in. Determine your respective roles in that pattern, and you will create the opportunity to change the pattern bit by bit, or byte by byte, if you like.

Emotional Reactivity Regulation

Last, but certainly not least, is the emotional reactivity regulation guide.  But don’t let it fool you.  This is not only for those who blow a gasket, and would benefit from effective self soothing methods.  It also applies to you who get silent, leave the room, or find other ways to disengage from the conflict.

Emotional reactivity has many faces and voices, generally falling in two categories:  Those who get big (the yellers, door slammers, plate throwers, etc.), and those who get small (the suddenly silent who clam up, leave the room, monosyllabic responders). Each is a manifestation of  reactivity.

Unregulated, or over regulated, emotional reactivity in the face of conflict may render useless every other guide in the communication guide spectrum.

There’s your list of communication guides.  Let them take the place of the so-called “tools”.

Communication skills develop as a direct result of putting the guides to use, over and over, tweaking and experimenting with them when necessary.  The more repetitions, the more skillful we become.

Up Next:  Part III will expound on each of the guides above.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT

©2010 All rights reserved

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1 Comment »

  1. What happens when you have a man who tells you – I don’t care about your feelings.I don’t care about what you think about and he deletes your texts when he sees you sent him a message.How do you work with a person like that? He also lives his life around me – it doesn’t include me.It’s more than just frustrating!

    Comment by Karen — December 1, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

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