Four steps closer to better communication today!
A few weeks ago I was working with a couple on understanding conflict, emotional responses, and how to soothe to promote more effective communication. As I was breaking down a few concepts around managing conflict based on The Gottman Method for couples therapy, I came up with this acronym to help them remember the concept when needed. This isn't only for couples either -- you can use it yourself in response to being triggered or stressed. So when you find that you are becoming flooded, flustered, beginning to yell, wanting to storm out of the room, shutting down, or using sarcasm, try this tool to process and move forward:
Step 1: What Happened?
Name that there was a shift in the conversation or in your mood/feelings and say what happened to cause it. This could be a perception of a behavior or your own response to a behavior. Ex: Ok, WAIT. We are starting to yell and heading into that direction that we know is not that productive. I can tell I'm starting to feel a little defensive and feel an urge to leave.
Step 2: Acknowledge Emotions and Needs
Share the emotions and feelings that are coming up for you. This is helpful because you need to acknowledge and validate your feelings first by stating that they exist. Then your partner is able to witness and hold space for you. Talk about what you need in order to move towards decreasing the frustration, conflict, or hurt. Ex: "I feel ______ when ______ because ______." "I need ______." "What I would like is ______."
Step 3: Initiate a Break
Take a break from the conversation. When we are feeling those emotions, it becomes more difficult to hold space for one another and process information. You may begin to listen to speak and rebut instead of listening for understanding. So taking a break for about 20 minutes and then coming back is helpful in regulating yourself. Be clear about the time length of the break and the intention to come back together to avoid feelings of rejection or abandonment.
Step 4: Tend to Needs
This is the time to engage in self-soothing or help one another regulate emotions, body responses, and tension. Be mindful of time and be sure to center relaxation NOT thinking about all the things you are going to say later.
Self-regulating vs Co-regulating
Self-regulation involves managing disruptive emotions and impulses, self-soothing, and engaging in self-care and doing so alone and without the aid of another person. Co-regulation involves another person and their acknowledgment of another's distress, offering support, and engaging in affirming, responsive, and welcoming interactions.
Both types of emotional regulation are valuable, valid and needed. I've also seen that when done well and with intention the 'Initiate a break" conversation can be very co-regulating, even if the plan is to self-regulate. The important piece is to reflect on your individual and couple needs in order to identify effective ways to approach either type. After looking at your own habits and trying out a mixture of the two, you and your partner(s) may find that a mixture of both is what works best for you! Here are a few examples for each:
Self-regulation can include meditation, coloring, watering plants, exercise, washing the dishes, journaling, deep breathing, grounding activities, saying affirmations, mindfulness, etc. Note: Storming away, using substances, stonewalling, isolating/avoiding are unhelpful ways to self-regulate.
Co-regulation can look like massages, deep breathing/matching breathing, cuddling or holding hands, statements that affirm that relationship, exercising, eye gazing. Note: Yelling at one another, name-calling, giving the cold-shoulder are unhelpful ways to co-regulate.
Sometimes, one partner's preferred way of regulating may not align with another's which means it's time to discuss a potential compromise. Take a look at your self-regulating activities and identify if any of them can be done separately, together. For example, if one person does not find touch to be comforting after an argument, could sitting in the living room together but doing individual tasks during the 'initiated break' be a work-around? There will be times when one approach is more effective than the other and that will take both you and your partner(s) time to figure out.
Communicating well takes intentional re-education and effort. There will be mistakes and times when you fall into old behaviors --- that's okay because you are learning new skills! Stick with it, call it out, take care of yourselves, and keep working at it. Remember, you and your partner(s) are on the same team working towards the goal of growing a stronger relationship everyday. Effective communication tends to lead to higher relationship and sexual satisfaction and I think your goals may include some of that so prioritize better communication.
Speaking of new skills around communication, I am co-hosting, "The Spark: A Virtual Brunch for Couples" which is coming workshop series for couples that's coming up in September. Check it out and learn about the workshop, "Couples Conflict & Resolution"!
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owns Healing Exchange LLC. She specializes in supporting healing after sexual violence, building self-esteem and confidence, and teaching healthy sexuality to individuals, those in relationships, and within supportive group settings. She also cofounded Afrosexology, a sex-positive, pleasure based sexuality education platform.