As Kyle Morrison explained on Wednesday, couples who reach out to The Gottman Institute in a state of distress almost always have one thing in common: they want to know that everything is okay. They want to know that they’re not alone, and they want to make things right. Unfortunately, having been raised on a steady diet of fairytale logic and pop songs, few of us are equipped with particularly good ideas of what a healthy relationship is – much less how to make contingency plans for when we can see that our relationship isn’t.

Operating from a basis of misconceptions about an effortless “happily ever after” can be dangerous. First of all, there’s no such thing as a flawless relationship, simply because there’s no such thing as a flawless person. And who would want this automatic perfection? Who would want to live in a world where everyone is the same? We could never fall in love, because there would be no source of connection – no shared idiosyncrasies, no weird inside jokes, no strange habits to bond over.

And yet, it’s true: not all flaws are adorable. Idiosyncrasies that seem cute when we’re falling in love often lose their appeal over time, and come out in fights – blow-outs that occur when we do our best to stay silent, but can’t help keeping a running tally of annoyances, or finally exploding at our partners with laundry lists of our frustrations.
But here’s the thing. Whether the crisis of the day is relatively minor, such as a partner’s chronic lateness, or more serious, like a penchant for substance abuse, the problems underlying conflict are often the same. They are rooted in issues of trust and communication. Because we aren’t automatons, we can’t read each other’s minds. The root cause of our conflict is often simply our inability to adequately express our differences, feelings, and needs.

Let’s look at an example: 

Jamie sits and stews at a restaurant, waiting for her husband, Joe. She is steaming because she’s been feeling neglected, and now she can see that he doesn’t care about the effort she’s made in planning their date night, booking a reservation, clearing her schedule, or making it to her current steaming position! She doesn’t know that Joe is late because he’s excitedly putting the finishing touches on a mix tape he’s making for her.

Now, imagine what the situation might look like if Jamie trusted Joe:

Rather than immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusion, she might wait patiently, not taking his lateness personally. She knows that Joe loves her and cares very much about spending time with her. She might assume that something has come up, and give him a call. If he doesn’t answer, she might talk to her fellow diners and end up making a friend or two before he arrives. When he comes in with a sheepish smile and her present, all might be forgiven.

But as we all know, not every scenario plays out this way, and the prerequisite for the alternative is trust, which can’t exactly be conjured up by saying a magic word. And that’s exactly why it’s so important for couples to take care of their connection to build a culture of appreciationturn towards instead of away, consult with their love maps, etc. Your emotional connection, this ability to see the best in each other and maintain positive expectations, is what helps couples protect their relationships from unnecessary stressors and weather the storms that do come.

In reality, what most distressed couples want is to re-establish a strong and healthy connection. The first step to re-building their bond is intentionally communicating non-defensively and openly. By doing so, couples may come to understand the reasons underlying each other’s choices and behavior patterns, express their frustrations in a gentler, more constructive way, and become aware, perhaps for the first time(!), of the effects they have on each other on a daily basis.

So why can’t we all just do this?

It turns out that the ability to have these kinds of conversations is not one we’re born with. However, like learning to ride a bike, the practice of intimate communication is a difficult one to unlearn. Make it a habit, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how natural healthy strategies begin to feel!

With further ado, here are Dr. Gottman’s three skills and one rule for having an intimate conversation.

The rule is that understanding must precede advice. In our Art & Science of Love Weekend Workshops, we tell couples that the goal of an intimate conversation is only to understand, not to problem-solve. We say this because premature problem solving tends to shut people down. Problem solving and advice should only begin when both people feel totally understood.

Skill #1Putting Your Feelings into Words

The first skill is being able to put one’s feelings into words. This skill was called “focusing” by master clinician Eugene Gendlin. Gendlin said that when we are able to find the right images, phrases, metaphors, and words to fit our feelings, there is a kind of “resolution” one feels on one’s body, an easing of tension. In intimate conversations, focusing makes our conversations about feelings much deeper and more intimate, because the words reveal who we are.

Skill #2: Asking Open-Ended Questions 

The second skill of intimate conversations is helping one’s partner explore his or her feelings by asking open-ended questions. This is done by either asking targeted questions, like, “What is your disaster scenario here?” or making specific statements that explore feelings like, “Tell me the story of that!

Skill #3: Expressing Empathy

The third skill is empathy, or validation. Empathy isn’t easy. In an intimate conversation, the first two skills help us sense and explore another person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Empathy is shown by communication that these thoughts, feelings, and needs make sense to you. That you understand why the other person’s experience. That does not mean that you necessarily agree with this person. You might, for example, have an entirely different memory or interpretation of events. Empathy means communicating that, given your partner’s perceptions, these thoughts, feelings, and needs are valid and make sense.You have your own perceptions. Both of your perceptions are valid. 

Look forward to applying these skills in the following homework assignment.

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Dr. Gottman’s 3 Skills (and 1 Rule!) for Intimate Conversation
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.