Stephen Duclos, the director of South Shore Family, is a huge movie buff. He spent the last week attending the Toronto International Film Festival, and raved about films like Green Book, Shoplifters, and Our Time in a recent business meeting. The brilliant dialogue in each of these films propels characters through conflict and problem solving around issues such as what to eat, relationship boundaries, and race.
Which got me thinking: If you were to write a screenplay of the last argument that you had with your partner, what would you find?
How long would the script be?
Who would talk more?
What type of interruptions would happen? How would you write that in your screenplay?
How many topics would you attempt to cover in the midst of said argument? What topics would get brought up?
Actually, that last question is far less important than it may seem.
When we get into arguments, something physiologically happens to our bodies that limits our effectiveness as communication—our blood pressure and heart rate increase, our breathing becomes more shallow, and our brains begin to overproduce cortisol, which whips us into a state of fight/flight/freeze. A conversation that started as how you’re going to handle the dishes in the kitchen can swiftly turn into a battle royale where you’re to convince your partner why you’re the more productive partner in the relationship.
A telltale sign that your conversation has been overtaken by anxiety is topic jumping. In between talking about handling the dishes and discussing who the most productive partner is, the following topics might be brought up: parenting disagreements, your mother (or father), that one argument you had last year on vacation. The more topics you jump to, the more powerful anxiety becomes, resulting in inefficient, frustrating conversations and a likelihood that the next conversation won’t be particularly positive.
In couples therapy, I might address this experience through the following process:
1) Identify the problem that you’d like to solve. State the problem in no more than two sentences: “Lisa, I would like to talk about how we can divvy up the dishes.” Make sure to only speak from what you can control; the aforementioned example lands much differently than “Lisa, I’d like to talk about how you can do the dishes better.”
2) Identify the goal of the conversation. Again, in one or two sentences, state only what you can control. Remember, the goal of the conversation may not be finding a solution. Common goals of conversations include learning more about your partner’s perspective, brainstorming a list of possible solutions, and describing the context around your position.
3) Set time parameters around the conversation. If there’s not enough time to presently address the problem, it may be more effective to schedule a later time to unpack the conversation. Anxiety may convince you that the problem is urgent when it actually isn’t; if you find yourself here, make sure that you find a way to take care of yourself between the time the problem gets mentioned and the time you actually address it.
4) Spend 3 minutes working toward the goal you establish. Set a timer if you need to. During this time, if your partner brings in another topic, calmly say “Can we address that in a minute? We haven’t finished this current conversation.” Make sure that both participants get a chance to speak and reflect on the topic.
5) At the end of 3 minutes, give each other a hug. Even if there is a disagreement in values between you and your partner, safe physical contact between you can reduce your stress, representing both the connectedness and distinct personalities of the relationships. This also signals a positive way to transition to the next experience.
6) Assess if your goals were met. If they weren’t, repeat steps 3-5. Determine if the conversation needs to be tabled; if so, schedule another time to return to the conversation. If you continue the conversation, take 5-10 minutes to work toward your goal. Always end with step 5.
On Wednesday, October 10, Stephanie Wallace and I (Jeremiah Gibson) are describing practical communication tips at “Communication Skills for Better Relationships”. The event is free, and will be from 6-7 PM at the Impact Hub Boston (50 Milk Street). Over the next few weeks, Stephanie and I will write about some of the relationship tips that will be covered at the meeting, such as the one listed above. Please join us, and if you’d like additional help with your relationship, feel free to schedule an appointment with me or Stephanie by calling us at 617-750-0183, or scheduling an appointment online.
Jeremiah Gibson, LMFT, CST, is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping couples get out of communication gridlock.