Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Solving Problems: Pay Attention

February 13, 1995

After two or three marriage counseling sessions I can tell how much real change can occur in a relationship. The cues don't relate to the couple's problems, but to the feelings generated when they talk to each other.

I notice their attitude toward each other. What they directly or indirectly express is, "I place little value on you or our relationship." The core of the problem is disrespect and a lack of empathy or concern about the other's feelings. Sometimes it is one partner and sometimes it is both who are the offenders.

What are the cues I notice?

A harsh tone: Instead of warmth, there is hostility. Instead of acceptance, there is rejection. Instead of concern, there is indifference. Instead of patience, there is raw anger. Instead of respect, there is disdain. Instead of charity, there is blame. There is no varnish on the criticism - no benefit of doubt, no allowance for weakness and no measuring of words. Accusations fall like sledgehammer blows upon the self-esteem of their partner. I don't see much love.

They icily lay out the perceived problem. If the actual words aren't cutting enough, they express harshness through body language and tone of voice. Unspoken communication says a lot more than the actual words being uttered.

One or both may regard counseling as a chance to impress a third party of their righteous cause and to win the battle of who is right and wrong. They do not see counseling as a chance for constructive dialogue with his or her partner.

Poor listening: when a partner is talking, little effort is used to understand the point of view. Comments are met with incredulity and defensiveness. Emotional arousal is intense. Even if they have had the floor, they can’t resist the impulse to interrupt, refute or counterattack. They assume to know when they don't know. Their frustrated partner intensifies his or her efforts to get through. They need a referee to establish ground rules for respectful communication.

I can see why they aren't solving problems. No one is listening. Worse yet, if the words and meaning get through, their partner may disregard the emotions and emotional force behind what they are saying. It is like the hurt, fear, anger, sadness, worry and confusion don't matter.  Besides addressing differences and negotiating solutions, counseling should also teach basic communication skills. How marriage partners talk to each other largely determines how they feel about each other. In a troubled marriage, partners walk away from disagreements feeling tense, uneasy, angry or discouraged.

How a partner feels after a problem solving session is just as important as what was settled. If people work out differences in a way that helps them feel loved, competent, respected, peaceful and hopeful, then they will have confidence to bring up fixture problems. Concern about the ongoing relationship is far more important than the resolution of any particular problem.

You are not the problem. Your partner is not the problem. The problem is the problem. Are you are looking down the barrel of a long gun or standing side by side when you search for a fair agreement?

Communicating concern and respect. These communication skills soften the message and place people side-by-side:

  • Be aware of timing, demands and moods before starting a conflictual discussion. Choose a location that is comfortable and puts you on your best behavior. Talking over problems after a meal at a restaurant may be a good place. If at home, sit, don't stand. Agree to disengage and come back to the problem later if one of you needs a break.
  • Try to understand your partner before giving your point of view. By listening, you may moderate your view or incorporate what you want to say with their perceptions.
  • Be curious about your partner's thinking. Be willing to be influenced by their ideas. Reflect back to your partner the essence of their point and frame it in a positive, constructive light. Check to see if you are correct.
  • Ask good questions and clarity what you don't understand. Try to draw out how an opinion relates to past experiences and what it means. Then you'll understand and be more empathetic to what they say.
  • Learn to read emotions, show concern and understand feelings. Relate empathetically to their point of view. Clarify what you don't understand. Allow your partner to blow off steam to get to a more rational state. Don't overreact to emotional outbursts. Help your partner save face by ignoring or minimizing clearly offensive behavior.
  • Explain your own emotions. Make sure your body language and tone of voice are respectful. Choose your words carefully and soften the way hard problems are expressed. Speak for yourself. Don't put words in their mouth.