Team-building Toward Win-Win Relationships
A Counselor’s Guide to Relationship Success
Bill Benson, LMFT, LPCC
Growing up, my mother taught me the best way to make friends was through a positive attitude. Two of her favorite sayings were: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” and “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.”
All these years later, my work as a clinician still incorporates my mom’s sage advice: I help people find and use the best of themselves to establish and enjoy relationship stability.
Ironically, couples usually come into counseling convinced that it’s the content of their arguments that’s creating relationship havoc. They are unaware that the leading cause of discord in relationships is the process of communication.
Negotiation takes place whenever people communicate. Step up to the counterperson at any fast-food restaurant, and you will engage in a back-and-forth that will get you the food you want. The same holds true in friendship: Text a buddy about seeing a movie, and ideas will flow between you until a film is determined and the meet-up specifics are decided.
But back-and-forth communication, particularly among intimate partners, can become complicated. According to a recent poll of 100 mental health professionals, communication problems (65%) and an inability to resolve conflict (45%) were the most common factors leading to their clients’ divorces.
My job is to shepherd awareness within clients (just as my mother had in me) to uncover practical 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 team dynamics. I now include these principles – communication, cooperation, and compromise – in my sessions to guide my clients toward mutual emotional victory.
The Healthy Couples Playbook
Based on my 23 years in practice (in addition to the 18 years under my parent’s roof), I have devised a healthy communication playbook of exercises that get results. Among them are five sure-fire strategies to help you and your partner create a long and winning season together.
Tip 1: Keep Disagreements in the Present
Fighting couples have a nasty tendency to pepper their arguments with past failures and/or foreboding forecasts. “There you go again” or “If you don’t change, you’ll be sorry” are classic bickering examples of an inability to stay in the present tense.
There is a scientific explanation for this tendency to rehash and/or project. Being that our brains are biological computers, and a computer’s job is to crunch data, memory, and imagination are ways to prove our points. However, because this information is based on recall or supposition, this evidence is one-sided. It complicates rather than clarifies.
Tip: Constructive conflict resolution occurs in the here-and-now.
I’ve had the opportunity to counsel professional baseball players with batting issues. Most are striking-out because they’re distracted by their overthinking.
Thoughts like “I haven’t had a base hit all week” or “I need this homerun, or they’ll demote me to the minor leagues” reverberate. The pitch whizzes past them because they are distracted with all of this unproductive data.
Through Mindfulness Training and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, I teach these athletes to focus only on 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 this focus usually gives us the needed time to solve the dilemma.
Most couples come to this eventual understanding, but only after wading through and debating all the evidence their brains have generated. Exhausted, they’ll finally state: so, what are we going to do about this now?
Successful communicators, just like homerun hitters, understand that to score, they must address “what is” not “what was” or “what might be.”
Tip 2: Stay on Topic
By design, arguments are competitions. The goal is to produce one winner (you) and one loser (the other person). Dueling partners will pull out all the stops to ensure the finish line is not reached while they’re in second place.
As strategies develop, diversions appear that keep the contest going until a self-advantage can be realized.
Imagine you come upon an impasse while jogging along a trail. This detour leads you to another obstacle, which creates another detour. Before long, you’re lost and disoriented.
This is called Migrating the Argument; it’s a tactic that creates so many diversionary tentacles that progress becomes nearly impossible. It makes interactions, and eventually, whole relationships, feel like uphill slogs. It’s a manipulative traffic jam designed to buy time to gain an advantage.
If your partner begins migrating the argument – bringing up unnecessary tangents – guide them back to the initial 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 mentioned.”
Remain diligent in your quest to stay the course – one course at a time. The key to successful conflict resolution is finding and navigating a clear roadmap – together.
Tip #3: Problem-solve instead of promoting an Agenda
Keeping score at sporting events or strategizing in the business world may yield precise results, but tit-for-tat setups within intimate relationships usually signal trouble.
Intimate relationships are characterized by deeply felt and symbolic undertones. Chances are good that partners have shown vulnerability and entrusted each other with their respective emotional truths. These beneath-the-armor experiences are both nurturing and nuanced. They 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, 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 of sharing mutual achievements with another.
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 variables used to chart these dynamics, there is a clinical consensus that what couples focus on while fighting directly impacts the outcome. It is their perception of the argument that plays a pivotal role in conflict resolution.
Partners who fight reasonably understand disagreements must center on behavior, not character.
Judging an athlete’s overall ability by one penalty is foolish – so is assessing someone’s character based on one misstep.
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.
“Stage-three” conflicts are like fumbling during a pivotal moment during the Super Bowl. They are tough to forgive and even harder to forget – and they make winning when it counts a lot more complicated.
These attacks can easily create emotional scarring, which permanently damages your relationship dynamic.
This behavior also says a lot about you – why would you choose to be in a relationship with someone you feel is so profoundly flawed?
The next time you disagree with your significant other, remember the qualities that made you commit to your relationship in the first place.
Successful couples stay within the perimeters of this behavior. “I disagree with what you did” or “when this happened, I felt overlooked by you” is fair game – character assassination is not.
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 then 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 to 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.
Example: Sally notices that Tom is under-representing his earnings on their joint tax return:
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 his actions are creating concern, he can weigh them. Does his shaving a few hundred dollars off their tax debt worth the emotional pain these actions cause 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 initially seem clinical and clunky, but, with practice, this communication habit can yield the positive result of a well-rehearsed play. Noticing our feelings also allows us to assess them for appropriateness (“am I over-reacting?”). Once vetted, sharing our feelings from an observational stance clears the communication of any accusation. Finally, inviting our teammate to comment on our feelings conveys the message that their thoughts matter to us, as well.
Knowing the rules of the game when interacting with others increases our experiences’ quality and enhances the possibility of positive outcomes. Just as my mother taught me with words and my father with actions, the ability to effectively team with others comes with attentiveness and practice.
Learning to keep disagreements in the present tense gives us the focus to solve our dilemmas. Staying on topic helps us get there more quickly. Centering 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 conclusion. Instead of promoting an agenda, problem-solving will go a long way toward achieving this goal. Conversing in “I Statements” is a sure-fire way to get there.
Just as a skilled athlete must train to get into physical condition, communication fitness is also achieved by developing a good regimen and disciplined intention.
Any situation can be solved if you relax, set down your need to win, and keep your eye on the ball.