If you analyzed the communication of any troubled couple, you'd find an absence of dialoguing - open, low-risk, free-flowing communication between two people whose main objective is to understand each other.
Instead, you'd find each partner using a preponderance of short, curt, defensive responses designed to protect self rather than to learn about the other person.So how do you restore communication to the positive flavor characteristic of courtship days? By doing something you may do fairly easily with some people you don't live with. Consider the strategies involved in dialoguing.
Practice listening. Think of dialoguing as involving your listening to your partner three-quarters of the time and responding with your own views the remainder. That means, if you're competing for air time, it will be to listen rather than to express your own views.
Also think of one goal in dialoguing as becoming as familiar with your partner's position on a subject as you are with your own.
Remember, information about your partner's position won't hurt you. You may not like the position, but listening doesn't mean you agree or that anything is going to happen immediately. So you can afford to listen.
In your listening, imagine you are a radio receiving signals transmitted by your partner. Feed back to your partner only what is communicated and rely heavily on responses that clarify and paraphrase. Leave your own ideas, views, and feelings until you present your position.
Ask your partner how you're doing: "What am I missing?"
"Do I understand your position fully?" Listen for five or 10 minutes at a time.
Consider that listening intently to your partner is the same as giving that person a gift - a verbal backrub.
Also think about a problem as being layered, like layers of an onion. The longer you listen, the more likely your partner will get to the core issues.
As you give your own views, present them as just that - views. Use opinion language - "This is the way the world appears to me," "From my perspective. . . ," "My stance is. . . ."
In dialoguing it is fair - in fact, essential - to present your own opinions. It is not fair, however, to present them as coming from a Book of Truth or to use the word "right" to describe your position and "wrong" to describe your partner's.
Also use "I" messages to describe your position - "I (need) (want) (wish) (like) (feel)."
Stay task-centered. There is a difference between behavior that is "task-centered" ("How can we solve this problem?") and behavior that is "personality-centered" ("You are the problem"). Task-centered behavior is the kind you hopefully use at work or in a board meeting to solve problems; personality-centered behavior is the kind you use in a good fight when a main objective is to wound and to assassinate the other person's character.
Stick to the present. Agree to refrain from bringing up anything that is more than a week old. If you have an extensive archive of all the past crimes the other person has committed, close up shop. One reason couples have so much trouble solving issues is that, often, the pres-ent problem is emotionally encumbered by every other problem that ever remotely resembled it, with all the accompanying negative feelings.
If you have to refer to past events, talk about how you feel about them now and how you are going to resolve those present feelings now.
Decide on a topic and stick with it. One characteristic of troubled couples is the ease with which they wade through dozens of issues in a few minutes without resolving any. It's so easy to deflect a partner's complaint with a "Well, if you think that's bad, I remember when you. . . ."
Put a "no-fault" clause in the relationship. If you're blaming each other, stop it. Remember that both of you have probably done the very best you could over the years, given your maturity level and the knowledge you had. If you could have done better, you would have.
Remember, too, that unconscious behavioral patterns often take over control in relationships in ways that people would never allow were they aware of those patterns.
Give each of you room to have made mistakes and to have learned from them.
Watch your language. There is no place in dialoguing for harsh words, raised voices, or sarcastic or critical tones. Religiously avoid the use of the words "should," "ought," "always" and "never." Also avoid labels that draw global conclusions about the other person - "You're (insensitive) (disorganized) (uncaring) (lazy) (rude)."
Divide dialoguing into two phases. Think of dialoguing as having a problem-assessment and a problem-solving phase if there is an issue to be resolved. Stick to the assessment phase until you both agree on what the problem really is.
Brainstorm. As you move to problem-solving, brainstorm alternative ways to solve the problem without criticizing each other's contributions. Then use a 1 to l0 "goodness-of-fit" scale to rate alternatives in which "1" means "This solution won't work for me" and "10" means "This solution fits perfectly." Choose the solution that has the highest combined weight.
-Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.