The best way for a couple to improve the way they communicate is to practice with proven skills in structured conversations. The more practice a couple has using research-based skills, the faster they will learn ways to communicate more effectively. Consistent practice is the simplest and most obvious, and also in many ways most challenging, way to help relationships.
Structured conversations have to happen with consistency and regularity, remain focused on specific skills and goals, and have two committed partners who show up ready to do the work.
The Importance of Communication Skills for Your Relationship
Humans cannot read minds no matter how well they think they know their partner. Therefore, the importance of building great, not just good, communication skills is critical for a healthy and stable relationship. Using specific communication skills will increase stability in your relationship, decrease arguments and angry feelings, and promote intimacy.
It Builds Trust
Great communication includes both speaking and listening. The better that you communicate with your partner, the more trust you will feel and the easier it becomes to share your inner thoughts and feelings. It is much easier to criticize or demean your partner than it is to share your fears and insecurities, but this takes its toll on intimacy and your emotional bond. When you build a more trusting relationship through better communication, you begin speaking more about how you feel and what you need, instead of about what your partner did or did not do or how they failed.
It Helps You Navigate Changes
Communication can help you navigate changes in relationships, such as when parents become empty nesters or when a couple has their first child. The stronger the foundation of trusting, healthy, and structured communication, the better able your relationship will be to weather any storm or challenging situation.
It Encourages Healthy Longevity
Relationships, like people, grow and change over time. New relationships have an initial phase of lust and passion, driven by oxytocin flooding our brain.1 As relationships progress, communication becomes critical to maintain feelings of closeness, love, and intimacy when this effect wears off.
Research by The Gottman Institute overwhelmingly demonstrates that healthy communication between partners decreases the chances of divorce, leads to greater trust and intimacy, and improves your actual physical health.2 This research explains how using structured conversations can support skill-building in communication, which helps couples tremendously. It truly cannot be overstated how fundamental and critical strong communication skills are to a healthy relationship. Specific concepts and methods to structure your conversations will be discussed below.
What Are Structured Conversations?
A structured conversation is conversational practice that consists of warming up, practicing skills, and ending with positive reinforcement. Setting aside a regular time to have conversations with your partner reserved for emotional communication and working through conflicts in healthy ways is important to make sure you stay on the same page in your relationship.
Practicing these skills will prepare you for inevitable conflicts, arguments, triggers, and stressful times in any relationship. These are the big game, when you use all the skills you have practiced along the way.
Structured conversations can be broken down into three main components:
The warm-up starts with making sure that each person’s basic needs are met. This includes having snacks on hand if one person is hungry, putting aside phones or other distractions, reviewing any outstanding items from earlier in the day, and discussing the goal of the upcoming skill practice.
2. Main Skill Practice
The main skill practice component involves focusing on a specific skill while discussing one topic. For example, if the skill you are focused on is active listening, you are doing your best to practice maintaining eye contact, nodding, using verbal cues such as “tell me more,” and using open body language.
The one topic of discussion could be anything that is on your mind, such as a recent argument. It is critical to stay laser focused on this single topic and not be distracted or pulled into layering other arguments on top of this. Resolve and address one issue at a time.
3. Positive Reinforcement Cool-Down
Lastly, the positive reinforcement cool-down is exactly what it sounds like. Make sure to end the conversation with positive statements, compliments, or appreciation for something specific that your partner did recently. You have both just worked hard and set aside time to improve your relationship and your communication patterns so leaving on a good note will keep you motivated to continue working together to build intimacy and trust.
Why Are Structured Conversations Important?
Structured conversations provide a format where each person knows and agrees to show up at a specific time to address an agreed-upon issue in the relationship. Both people need to be on the same page and work together to improve the relationship. Following through on this simple structure demonstrates right away that each person is invested and can be accountable for practicing, using, and reinforcing positive behaviors.
How Do They Help Me Communicate in My Relationship?
Structured communication helps protect both people in the relationship for several reasons. First and foremost, there are fewer surprise attacks because each person knows ahead of time when the conversation will happen. This sets each person up for success because it is less likely for either person to feel attacked or be on the defensive. The structure of this conversation ensures that you are both on the same page and are trying to solve an acknowledged problem in the relationship.
People don’t learn best in a vacuum. We tend to learn best when supported by someone who is close to us socially and in skill level.3 The best learning happens when we are with someone we trust, are pushed a bit but not too much, and have repeated attempts to practice in a safe environment. This concept applies to structured conversations in relationships and learning skills to increase healthy communication.
The goal is to address an issue in the relationship that impacts you both. You are on the same team. It is you and your partner against the problem. Learning to approach all conflict from this stance will help you to learn and practice these skills together. You both probably contribute to causing whatever problems are being discussed, so it is imperative to find ways to approach learning how to solve issues as a team.
How to Practice Structured Conversations in Your Relationship
It’s important to be prepared for when one person is flooded by emotions or someone raises their voice. Having a code word set up and making sure to practice regularly can really help you make the most of your conversations.
Schedule Them Regularly
Establish a time for structured conversations at regular intervals. At least once a month is recommended and at least once a week is preferred when you are first starting this practice so that you can build the habit and gain skills more quickly. Again, the more you practice the better and sooner the habits and skills are learned.
Have a Code Word
Couples that establish signals and “code words” have a shorthand that serves them well when practicing these skills. Having non-verbal signals, body language, or agreed-upon code words will help when tensions are high or you do not feel able to communicate effectively. The timeout hand signal is a great one to use when one person feels the need for a break.
Examples of Structured Conversations
Structured conversations are a time to explore the thoughts, feelings, and needs of a couple. These conversations can address many topics and involve active listening and resolving specific issues within the relationship.
Couple Figuring Out New Baby Responsibilities
A couple with a new baby have had their sleep disrupted. They disagree about the best way to approach bedtime routine, what to do in the middle of the night, how to support each other in the morning, and when to find time for their relationship needs. Every time one of them is ready to talk about things it seems like the other person is too stressed or busy and it leads to an argument. One partner wants to try ‘sleep training’ and the other person thinks reaching out to their pediatrician is a better approach.
A structured conversation can be used to help this couple determine next steps and feel better attuned to each other in the following ways:
- The ‘warm-up’ will give each person time to meet their basic needs. Having a new baby is stressful and disrupts routines.
- In this case the ‘main skill’ involves hearing each other’s thoughts and feelings regarding sleep and what to do next to help their newborn sleep. Couples that improve their listening skills are better able to come to mutually agreeable decisions.
- New parents need lots of positive reinforcement while figuring out their new roles and responsibilities. Having this as a key component of the structured conversation helps each parent feel more secure in their new role.
Couple Disagreeing About Money
A couple argues every time they talk about money. One person wants to eat out regularly while the other wants to make a shopping list and cook at home. One person wants to plan a vacation while the other wants to upgrade their home. Each person feels that they are right and should be free to spend money how they see fit.
A structured conversation can help this couple change this dynamic in their relationship and change the way they talk about money:
- The ‘warm-up’ could include each person organizing their finances to show the past month’s spending so that they can view how they have been spending and saving. The ‘warm-up’ could also include each person writing down a list of their spending priorities.
- The ‘main skill’ could involve actively listening to each other’s relationship with money and how they learned spending and saving habits growing up. Then they could work to set a monthly budget that meets both of their needs and involves some version of mutually acceptable compromise.
Common Communication Mistakes
We all fall into communication traps when we are frustrated, upset, or hurt. When we have these feelings we often blame the other person, want to avoid talking about it, or create a new problem. Using “you” language, projecting your feelings, and ignoring repair attempts are all common communication mistakes that damage relationships. Learning to avoid these mistakes will reduce how often and how big your arguments become.
Using “You” Language
When someone is hurt they tend to lash out or react defensively. This is when they start to use ’you” language, as in, “You always leave the dishes in the sink,” or ”You never notice or say anything when I am trying to connect with you.” These statements are all-or-nothing statements that may feel true in the moment when feeling frustrated and upset. However, these statements do not leave the other person much room to make it right. Is it really true that they always or never do something? By using “you” language paired with an all-or-nothing statement we are lashing out and attacking our partner.
Projecting on Your Partner
Projection is when one person accuses the other of a feeling that they have. For example, a partner who feels insecure may accuse their partner of cheating, flirting, or doing something distrustful. This will lead to the partner feeling that they are not trusted and are constantly under a microscope. This dynamic does not serve the relationship and avoids talking about the real issues.
Ignoring or Disregarding Repair Attempts
A repair attempt is when a person tries to de-escalate an argument and dial back the tension.4 For example, in the middle of an argument that is spiraling out of control one partner might reach out for a hug and tell their partner that they love them. Other couples use humor as a repair attempt and may make a silly face at their partner to try and change the tone of the argument from seriousness and anger to silliness and calm.
If one partner uses a repair attempt, remember it is a vulnerable action meant to ease the tension and communicate more effectively. It is a common mistake for one person to ignore or disregard these repair attempts and continue lashing out. This will lead to the person who tried to repair things feeling vulnerable, disheartened, and shut down.
How Can Structured Conversations Help Fix These Issues?
Structured conversations provide a framework for a couple to practice their communication skills, address conflict at a specific time when each person is prepared and ready for it, and provide an opportunity to share feelings. Using this framework to promote skillbuilding provides couples an opportunity to address the root issues in their relationship.
Using these conversations, you can avoid the same problematic cycles that have led to repeated arguments. Structured conversations also bake in opportunities to appreciate and compliment each other, which builds goodwill and trust.
Conflict is a healthy component of all human relationships. We are human beings, not robots, and have different backgrounds, priorities, and needs than our partners. The goal of a healthy relationship is to find better ways to approach conflict and resolve disagreements, not to avoid them completely.
Five Communication Tips for Couples
Some tips for structured conversation include tracking the words spoken, reading your partner’s body language, monitoring your won body language, clarifying confusing or missed statements, preparing responses, and keeping emotional reactions in check so that the conversation can proceed. That is a lot to do all at once!
Here are five tips to break down those skills:
1. Active Listening
- Sit up
- Lean forward
- Ask and Answer questions
- Nod your head
- Track the speaker
This positive behavior strategy was designed for use in a classroom setting to teach students how to better engage in a learning environment and is well-suited to relationships.
2. “I Feel” Statements
Make sure to use “I feel” statements as often as possible. When we focus on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we are better able to communicate to our partner what the problem is and how to resolve it. Using “you” language will put your partner on the defensive and does not give them an opportunity to understand how their actions impacted you, which is your intention to begin with. Again, remember that your partner cannot read your mind and you cannot read theirs.
3. Repair Attempts
Consciously think about ways that you can repair the relationship even in the middle of an argument. How can you dial back the tension and intensity? What does your partner respond to? Humor? Touch? Offers to help? Using repair attempts will help to re-frame the conflict. Similarly, does your partner use repair attempts that you are missing or ignoring. Could their attempts to use some of the above actions be an olive branch to you in the middle of an argument?
4. One Thing at a Time
Address and solve one thing at a time. If you are talking about something that happened that day, do not bring up something else that happened last week or last year. This will only lead to escalation and defensiveness. Solve the issue that is right in front of you and find a different time to address the other hurts or wounds.
Let success breed success and use the momentum of resolving one issue at a time begin to improve your pattern of communication so that there are less hurt feelings in the future. The better you feel about the present the less the past will affect your day-to-day.
5. End on a Positive
This tip is primarily based on the recency effect in which a person is most likely to remember the last thing that they read or the most recent thing discussed.5 So, by ending any communication on a good note you are making it more likely that each of you will recall the whole interaction positively.
Additional research by the Gottman Institute demonstrates that stable and healthy marriages maintain a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative statements during conflict.4 Think about that research. The best couples, even in the heat of an argument, use five positive statements like compliments or offers of support for every one negative statement like criticism or judgment. This is a powerful statistic that should be considered during every interaction in a relationship.
How to Talk to Your Partner When You’re Angry or Upset
Conflict is inevitable. When it happens, do whatever you can to not make things worse. Approach angry or upset feelings early on. You may be upset or angry now but think about what happens in an hour or a day after you have lashed out. Keep that in the front of your mind.
Other tips for talking to your partner when you’re upset include:
- Take deep breaths: This will help you remember everything you learned during practice.
- Keep snacks on hand: Don’t argue when hungry. Just don’t.
- Have a plan for breaks or timeouts: Better to take time away than to say something you will regret.
- Set a time limit for the conversation: Going in circles often leads to frustration. Agree on a time to walk away from the conflict if you cannot resolve it. Then, set a time to come back later.
Remember, all relationships involve conflict. Structured conversations will help you to build the necessary skills to avoid, resolve, and grow from conflict.