Team-building Toward Win-Win Relationships

As a child, my mother taught me that successful relationships were more a result of character than content. I still pass two of her favorite sayings: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” and “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar” along in session, since much of my work with clients involves team-building for win-win results.

Team-building Tango

Whenever two people interact, negotiation becomes necessary: Step up to the counterperson at any fast-food restaurant and you will probably engage in a universally accepted back-and-forth that will get you the food you desire. The same holds true in friendship: Text a buddy about getting together for a movie and ideas will flow between you until a film is determined and the meet-up specifics are decided.
However, within love relationships this back-and-forth can prove challenging: According to a recent poll of 100 mental health professionals, communication problems (65%) and an inability to resolve conflict (45%) are the most common factors leading to divorce.
Ironically, couples often come into counseling convinced that it is the content of their arguments that creates the relationship havoc – they are unaware that the main cause of their discord is the way they are communicating. It is my job to shepherd awareness within these clients (just as my mother had with me) so that they can uncover healthier ways of relating to one another.

Playing By The Rules

Let’s not leave my father’s influence out of this: My dad, first a footballer and then a coach, imparted an understanding of team dynamics. I now include these dynamics – communication, cooperation, and compromise – in my sessions to guide my clients toward mutual emotional victory.

The Healthy Couples Playbook

Based on my 20 years in clinical practice (in addition to the 18 years under my parent’s roof) I’ve devised a healthy communication playbook, which I use with my couples clients. Below are five strategies excerpted from this coaching to help you productively partner for a long and winning season:

Team-building Tip #1: Keep Disagreements in the Present

Fighting couples have a nasty tendency to pepper their arguments with examples of past failures and/or foreboding forecasts: “There you go again” or “If you don’t change, you’ll be sorry” are classic examples of bickering from an inability to stay in the present tense.
There is a scientific explanation for this tendency to rehash and/or project: Because our brains are biological computers – and computers crunch data – past (memory) and/or future (imagination) are easily accessed information sources to support our side of an argument. However, because there is nothing we can do about past actions (as they have already occurred) or future projections (as they haven’t happened) these projections only complicate disagreements: The only way to resolve conflict is through focusing on the here-and-now.

Play Ball!

I’ve had the opportunity to counsel professional baseball players with batting issues. I’ve found that most strike-out because they’re not present enough to see the ball clearly: Hovering over home plate, their minds begin downloading memories like: “I haven’t had a base hit all week” or booting up projections like: “I need this homerun or they’ll demote me to the minor leagues.” The pitch whizzes past them because they are distracted with all of this unproductive data.
These players’ batting averages usually improve once they become aware that they are over-thinking. Through Mindfulness Training and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, I coach these athletes to address only the topic at hand: connecting their bat to the pitched ball. Once this occurs, the players report a newfound ability to track the pitcher’s delivery more easily and aim their swing more precisely. In other words, we can only influence what’s unfolding before us – and use this newly-found presence to guide us.
Successful communicators, just like homerun hitters, understand that in order to score they need to address “what is” not “what was” or “what might be.” Most couples will come to this eventual conclusion, but only after wading through and debating all the evidence their brains have generated. Exhausted, couples will finally state: “so…what are we going to do about this now?” Ironically, a lot of time has been wasted talking about the problem, instead of focusing on the solution.


Team-building Tip #2: Stay on Topic

Imagine you come upon an impasse while jogging. This detour leads you to another impasse, and then to an additional detour. Before long, you lose direction and become disoriented – you have lost the ability to navigate to your destination.

When arguing, winning often becomes the goal of each opponent. Strategies develop and diversions appear to keep the contest going until each competitor feels victorious – which is impossible because if there is one winner, there is also one loser. Dueling partners will pull out all the stops to ensure the finish line is not reached while they’re in second place.

I call this migrating the argument: It’s a tactic to divert the conflict onto so many pathways that forward progress becomes impossible. It’s a manipulative traffic jam, designed to be counterproductive, and often makes interactions – and eventually whole relationships – feel like uphill slogs.

If your partner begins migrating the argument, attempt to guide him or her back to the original path of conversation through reassurance: Make statements like: ”You just brought up a good point, however, let’s resolve the issue we’re addressing right now before moving on to the one you’ve just injected into our conversation.”

The goal of communication should be clarity: Remain diligent in your quest to stay the course – one course at a time.

Team-building Tip #3: Problem-solve instead of promoting an Agenda

Keeping score at sporting events or strategizing in the business world may yield clear results but competitive setups within intimate relationships usually signal trouble.

Intimate relationships are characterized by deeply felt and symbolic undertones. Committed partners have usually shown each other their vulnerability and entrusted each other with their own emotional truths: These beneath-the-armor experiences are both nurturing and nuanced and must be taken into consideration – even protected – when disagreements arise. Winning an argument forces your partner to concede his or her own meaningful convictions. This, in turn, can lead to emotional distancing or worse. Victory often creates its opposite consequence. Simply put: “You can win a battle but lose the war.”

When disagreements arise, instead of myopically promoting your own agenda, remember you and your spouse are on the same team: It doesn’t make sense to kick your partner in the shins when the overall point is to work together to get the ball over the goal line. Differences are vital to the balance within a relationship: consider your collaborator’s strengths and play to them. Realize every talented Quarterback needs a great Receiver. Set down your ‘winner takes all” attitude and enjoy the sweetness that comes from sharing successes with another.

Team-building Tip #4: Focus on Behavior not Character

Like coaches diagramming plays on whiteboards, therapists love to explain the play-by-play characteristics of human interaction. Regardless of the methods used to chart these dynamics, there is a clinical consensus that what couples focus on while fighting has a direct impact on the success of the outcome: it is their Perception about the argument that plays the pivotal role in conflict resolution.

Partners who fight fairly understand disagreements must center on behavior, not character. Just as it would be ridiculous for a referee to judge an athlete’s overall ability via one penalty, assessing someone’s character based on one misstep would be equally foolish.

Find yourself screaming: “you’re an idiot!” or “you don’t care about us!” or “I hate you!” and you will eventually come to regret these statements because they reveal and communicate your derogatorily held perceptions about your spouse’s character.

These utterances are like fumbling the football at the Super Bowl: they are hard to forgive and even harder to forget – and can cost you your ring. These attacks can easily create emotional scarring, which permanently damages your relationship’s dynamic. This behavior also says a lot about you – why would you choose to be in a relationship with someone you feel is flawed to their core?

The next time you disagree with your significant other, remember the qualities he or she has that made you commit to them in the first place: Noted psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term “Unconditional Positive Regard” to describe the support and acceptance of another despite their occasional mistakes or lapses of reason. Successful couples stay within the perimeters of behavior: “I disagree with what you did” or “when this happened, I felt overlooked by you” is fair game – character assassination is not.

Team-building Tip #5: Use ‘I Statements’

I often tell couples: if you never want to argue again, use I Statements!

An I Statement is a way to claim and convey your feelings when issues arise without indicting another. This intervention’s effectiveness lies in its thoughtful and non-judgmental approach: You are taking self-responsibility for your reaction to a challenge instead of playing the blame-game.

There are four steps involved in conveying an I Statement:

1.) Notice your emotional response and the circumstance that’s triggering it.

2.) Convey how this event is making you feel.

3.) Invite your partner to share how he or she feels about the way you’re feeling.*

4.) Describe the exact behavior that would help you resolve your struggle.

*I’ve italicized the second part of point #3 because it is very important that your partner only give feedback about your emotional response to the issue, not his or her view of this issue.

Example: Sally notices that Tom is under-representing his earnings on their joint tax return.

Sally might say:

1.) I see that there’s an income discrepancy on our tax return…

2.) …and this is making me feel uneasy.

3.) Tom, I’d like to know how you feel about the fact that I’m now nervous and worried.

4.) It would make me feel better if we stated the actual amount we earned last year.

Once Tom realizes that his actions are creating upset in someone he loves, he weighs whether or not to modify his actions – is shaving a few hundred dollars off their tax debt worth the emotional pain these actions are causing his wife? Tom lets Sally know that it wasn’t his intention to make her nervous and, because he cares about her, he is willing to correct the income line on their tax return.

Conveying I Statements may seem clinical and clunky initially, but, with practice, they can yield the positive result of a well-implemented play: Noticing our feelings allows us to assess them for appropriateness. Once vetted, sharing our feelings from an observational stance clears the communication of any accusation. Finally, inviting our teammates to comment on our feelings conveys the message that their thoughts matter to us, as well.

The Rules of the Game

Knowing the rules of the game when interacting with others increases the quality of the experiences and enhances the possibility of positive outcomes. Just as my mother taught me with words and my father with actions, the ability to effectively interact with others involves awareness and practice.

Learning to keep disagreements in the present tense gives us the moments we need to solve our dilemmas. Staying on topic helps us get there more quickly, and focusing on behaviors not character keeps arguments away from being taken as personal attacks.

The point of any discussion is to arrive at a mutually beneficial determination: Remembering to problem solve instead of promoting an agenda will go a long way in achieving this goal – learning to talk in “I Statements” is a sure-fire way to get there.

Just as top athletes train for peak performance, couples most often achieve relationship success through a regimen of communication and a discipline of intention.

Any situation can be solved if you relax, set down your need to win, and keep your eye on the ball….


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