Many of the couples I see have some difficulties slowing things down and tell me they are in a conversation one minute, then before they know it, they are fighting. Does this happen to you? Do you know how to pinpoint where things are going wrong and steer them in the right direction? For folks that frequently get into arguments but don’t know why, the following sample may help you evaluate your dynamic, slow things down, and use your communication skills. The purpose of this script is to create new, more helpful behaviors that will help build trust and lead to more productive conversations rather than arguments and/or fights. I highly, highly recommend practicing this with your partner on material that is not emotionally-laden as a way to learn the process several times before you apply it to “hot topic” material. As always, please reach out to a Couples Therapist if you need further help.
1) Check in with yourself. Identify any feelings and the source of those (see the 13 tips on emotional intelligence article link if you get stuck here).
2) Determine your number (1= ready / 5= ready with possible contingencies/ 10= not ready) related to how you feel. For example, if you are at a 7/10 on frustration, you may not be ready to enter into a conversation yet.
3) If your number is higher than a 5, determine what you may need to do to lower your number before engaging in a conversation (Use the link with the 50 de-escalation tips for ideas if you get stuck here).
4) If BOTH people are ready to proceed with a conversation, name what you would like to talk about like this “I would like to talk about our credit cards,” or “I want to bring up your parents upcoming visit, can we talk about it later tonight?” This asking permission step serves a new pattern of pre-identifying anything that might be a hot topic, and allows one or both partners to start preparing for the conversation. This is very helpful if one or both partners become flooded or overwhelmed quickly.
5) Prepare to “pump the breaks” by setting limits such as limits on time, limits on staying on one topic and one topic only, etc. Examples might include “Can you agree that if we can’t come to a resolution in 20 minutes, then we should take a break until tomorrow and switch to talking about something more pleasant?” or, “Yes, and let’s stay to just this one thing tonight. We can talk about the other thing Wednesday night.” “If we happen to get off-track, we will just start over, sound good?”
6) Check in with yourself again and decide if you are truly ready now that you’ve named the topic and prepared to pump the breaks. If not, repeat steps 1-3, tell your partner you need more time and suggest another date or time.
7) If you are BOTH ready, proceed with the topic by ensuring you are using skills already learned that are more likely to lead to a conversation than an argument. These include validating, using “I” statements, complain (an assertive “I” statement) without blaming, state your need in the positive (“I would like to have this” versus “I don’t want any more of that.”), describe without judging, recognize intent, and show appreciation and gratitude (ask me if you need a review of any of these important skills).
Here it is equally important to make sure you are NOT invalidating, listening defensively, using any of the four horsemen, being harsh, demanding, and/or inflammatory.
8) Check in with yourself BEFORE responding. It is okay to have intense emotions, but how we communicate these has everything to do with whether we further connect to our partner, or erode trust. Pause before replying. It is okay if your reply is “I need to take a minute, can you please be patient with me?” or “This is really upsetting, I thought I could talk about it, but I’m just not there yet.” Notice that these are “I” statements, not “you” or blame statements.
9) Summarize what you have heard so that you capture what was intended. Ask if you got it all. If not, have your partner fill in any gaps. If you need to clarify, ask your Significant Other to clarify.
10) De-escalate again as needed. Respond non-defensively with your perspective, view, and/or needs.
11) Continue the conversation as applicable. Stop when the boundary of time or topic has ended. Stop when flooding has occurred (“I’m getting overwhelmed, I need to take a break, I’m going to take the dogs out for 30 minutes”), and/or the Four Horseman have crept in and/or any invalidation or inflammatory comments. If you can keep going through the 4 horsemen and/or inflammatory/invalidating remarks via the Repair Checklist, go ahead. But only do so if BOTH people are ready.
If you get stuck at this stage, you may need help with acceptance, understanding, negotiation, and/or compromise with a Couples Therapist.
12) Give each other kudos for trying a new skill. If you get stuck on a hot topic, bring it to therapy. If you get stuck with the process, or how to deliver a message, bring it to therapy.
Micah Brady, LICSW, LCSW-C, CTC, eRYT