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  • Writer's pictureElise Loprieno

Transforming Tension into Teamwork: A Guide to Effective Communication in Relationships

Are you finding yourself cycling through that same argument over and over?

You know the one. It’s the one that feels like somehow you and your partner, parent, or child have memorized a script and on a weekly (or daily) basis you’re just playing out your assigned roles as the scene inevitably spirals out of control into a tense and conflict-filled remainder of the evening.Is there more than one of these fights? 

Or does it feel like it’s – impossibly – the same fight over and over dressed up in different contexts? If this feels familiar, here’s a 4-step fix that will help everyone win that argument every time. 

Spoiler alert: Making a lose-lose situation into win-win means redefining victory.

You’ll get your needs met, and so will they. 

You’ll feel heard without having to raise the volume into yelling territory.

Best of all, you’ll maybe even reverse the spiral on this fight and find a way to avoid it altogether next time it rears its ugly head. Bear with me though, this first step is going to feel a little paradoxical. 

The payoff is 100% worth the effort. 

Step 1: Compassion

Or: Listen closely if you want to be listened to. 

A dog with one ear cocked, listening intently

Validation doesn’t have to mean agreeing, but according to Alan Fruzzetti, it can be a magic bullet to de-escalation. In his book The High Conflict Couple, he talks about the rule of 3: if someone you care about is expressing big emotions, 3 validations in a row are a surefire way to reduce the level of pressurized feels being aimed in your general direction. 

When the person across from us feels heard, they’ll be MUCH more willing to listen. 

That’s why the first step to being HEARD is actually to become a more intentional LISTENER. 

Let’s Practice: Authentically Curious Validation might look something like:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ___ , am I getting that right?”

  • “I hear that you’re under the impression I feel ___ , would you like to know how I actually feel?

  • “It makes sense to be feeling ___ . That must be really difficult.

Step 2: Communication

Or: What needs to be SAID, vs. What needs to be HEARD

A man and a woman talking over coffee

Sometimes, we really ache for the other person to understand where we’re coming from. Maybe they have their own interpretation of where our head’s at, and maybe they don’t necessarily have all the facts. To some extent, clarifying the details and context can be helpful. In the least effective moments, this same intent can turn into someone referencing past arguments and bringing in tangentially relevant slights that aim to even the playing field. 

To finish this fight quickly, time is of the essence. Which means we need to be concise with our words and intentional with our tone. This means getting really clear about our measure of success. 

Here’s a quick acronym that will help: WAIT: Why Am I Talking?

According to Marsha Linehans’s work in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, our priorities are often split between the following 3 options: 

  • Getting an Objective met

  • Salvaging the Relationship

  • Honoring our Self Respect

Is what you’re saying in service of any of these goals? If not, why not? If so, is there a quicker way to get your point across without adding any details that are – for purposes of this conversation – better left unsaid?

Step 3: Collaboration

Or: Redefine Winning. You’re fighting the PROBLEM, not one another. 

It can be really tempting to get caught up in the rush of a confrontation. Emotions start rising, faces flush, and like the saying goes: “misery loves company.” Actually, our brains have these things called mirror neurons that tend to get us caught up in others’ emotions as we both empathize and recognize potential threats to our emotional safety on their faces. 

Fun fact: Emotions only last about 90 seconds…unless we keep re-cycling them.

When we’re fighting with a loved one, it’s important to keep our focus on the long-term goals for our relationship rather than the short term goals that our emotion urges pull us toward. 

Marsha Linehan’s work on Distress Tolerance (enduring big emotions without making things worse) and Emotion Regulation (the art of listening to the messages our emotions are sending) have a lot more to say on all of this. 

For purposes of this step, your best bet is to slow down time with a quick skill:

STOP: Stop talking, Take a step back, Observe what’s happening, Proceed Mindfully

When we take 5 in the middle of an argument, we can let our jets cool a bit and then come back re-focused and ready to problem-solve rather than finger-point.

Step 4: Conflict Resolution

A solved Rubik's Cube

Or: Beware the Fault Fallacy & Find the “Non-Rhetorical Why”

Did you know that blame and fault are past-tense concepts? In his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson talks about the uselessness of assigning blame. By keeping our minds on responsibility, we maintain control over the only thing we can change – the present and the future. 

Responsibility sounds like “how do we fix this?” or “what do we do differently next time?”

If you find yourself asking “Why did it go so far?” or “How did we get here?” I invite you to pause. 

Did you ask those questions with genuine curiosity? Is the answer something other than “because I messed up” or “because they should have known better?” 

Rhetorical Why’s keep us spinning our wheels in judgments and "shoulding" all over ourselves. 

If we want this conflict to go away and NOT come again another day, we’ll have to get genuinely curious as to how it came about. And then take responsibility for our part in preventing it or ensuring a quicker resolution the next time around. 

Why fight harder when you can fight smarter? 

Two men in rainbow bandanas hugging

Still feeling stuck? Reach out to the TBH Therapy team for a consult and get some neutral, knowledgeable insights into your emotional experience. 

Transforming Tension into Teamwork: A Guide to Effective Communication in Relationships

Written by Elise Loprieno, LMFT. Learn more about Elise or reach out to her here!

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