Communication breakdown is the #1 reason couples come to therapy. Communication styles can create conflict, and communication with someone who has PTSD can be even more complicated. Today, I'd like to provide an approach to creating an environment to communicate with intent.
Imagine, we all have two minds: one logical and the other emotional. When one is speaking logically, they are speaking with facts and figures, and they have much content to offer to support their position. When someone is speaking from their emotional "heart" they are sharing their pains, fears, and worries. Those feelings often are more about intuition and projections based on fear. They usually don't have facts to support them, and feelings seldom change even when presented facts to the contrary. Have you ever changed how you feel simply because someone said, "You shouldn't feel that way"? We now are living in a world where communication is no longer breaking down; it is broken. We used to avoid difficult conversations like religion, sex, and politics, but all that has changed to where all we seem to talk about are the many changes and challenges of all three. Unfortunately, forced communication with challenging content can create more pain than serve a real purpose.
Communication is often the main reason couple's come to therapy. Healthy communication can be restored if the people involved are willing to take the time to learn and practice some simple steps to conflict resolution. It takes two to have a fight and it takes two willing participants to resolve the conflict. Sometimes, a professional mediator (therapist) can help because they are trained to help where friends and family members are not and can get wrapped up in the emotion because they can't distance themselves sufficiently.
I suggest to my clients that they must first set up the pre-conversation safety zone. Be intentional. This means setting a time, place, and environment where they will not be distracted in the middle of the conversation. This conversation does not take place on "date night" or just before you go to bed. Depending on the topic, and how many times it has been bought up without resolution, they might need to get a hotel room away from the children or send them on an overnighter to their grandparent's house.
Once the place and time has been set, the environment must be conducive to uninterrupted focus. Don't talk over dinner at a crowded restaurant. Eat first. Make sure you are rested. Don't start the conversation late in the evening. Don't start preempting the conversation on the drive to the destination. Find a place that is peaceful, quiet, and comfortable. Face each other and hold hands. Determine who will start the conversation and who will be first to listen.
When the speaking begins, listener-don’t interrupt. Setting a timer works well if one person talks too long, goes off course, or is easily distracted. Setting a timer for 3-5 minutes helps also if one person has AD/HD or OCD and can’t stay focused for long periods of time. You might need to take a huge topic and break it into bite size topics. As they say, “You can eat an elephant one bite at a time.” Don’t expect the listener to consume every problem you have all at once. Don't bring a laundry list of problems. Pick ONE issue to discuss on stay on topic.
It’s also beneficial to write down what it is you want to say. Write it with a goal in mind and a date when you would like the task, situation, or resolution to be completed. If it’s an unfinished task that is the problem, what would it take to get it done, costs involved, and the desired date of completion. If the subject is regarding a situation, how does it get resolved? Don’t just bring someone your problem and then ask them to solve it for you. It’s your problem and it’s unfair to dump it on someone else. If you are only asking permission to resolve the problem and seek their support, seek understanding first before you enlist their help.
If your desire is a change in your partner, realize that change must be their choice. You can point out the behavior or pattern and the impact of their behavior on you, the kids, finances, etcetera, but ultimately you are only providing them your perspective of the problem. Your goal is to provide insight, information, and support for the choice you hope they will make. You can set boundaries on how long you will tolerate the problematic behavior, advise them of potential consequences if they don’t change, but you cannot demand they change. Enter the conversation with hope, a desire for healing, and with both minds engaged.
Be responsible for your own 2 minds as you can only be responsible for your own mindset. Remember, logic does not communicate with emotion, and you must both be in the same mindset in order to communicate well.
Lastly, seek to understand, not to defend. When we become defensive the argument happens. When we seek to understand, to find a solution, to fix what is broken, communication can lead to resolution.
Realize that communication is talking WITH someone else, not AT them. Lecturing without the other's permission is not communication. Telling someone your complaint and walking out of the room is not communication. Refusing to listen to their side unless they agree with you is not communication. When two people can be patient, kind, caring, and listen with the intention to learn, communication can be amazing.