One of the most common items couples struggle with is communication. The inability to communicate leads to all sorts of misunderstandings, failures to resolve problems and cycles that build up to create significant dissatisfaction with the relationship. Fisher and Brown, of the Harvard Negotiation Project present some fundamental elements of communicating and problem solving in their book Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate. This book is the sequel to the bestseller Getting to Yes. Although not writing from a therapy background, their work on communication is consistent with what we share with our clients at Fuller Life. This post is the second in our series on Getting Together.
Our first post introduced the six elements of a good working relationship as well as the attitude over all of them: “Do only those things that are both good for the relationship and good for us, whether or not they reciprocate” (38). These six elements are based on a commitment to be unconditionally constructive. Now we will look a bit closer at the first two of the six.
1. Rationality: Balance emotions with reason.
Communication suffers when emotion and reason are not in proper balance. When emotion overrides the system it affects our judgment. On the other hand, emphasizing the rational side too much may leave one out of touch with the other’s interests, desires, and motivations. Both too much emotion AND too much rationality impair empathy. Each, in the proper balance, has very important benefits to communication and problem solving. Emotions can give us motivation and insight into ourselves and the other. Logical thinking can help us make an informed, calculated decision. Data can help us overcome untested assumptions and help us choose the best course of action.
Fisher and Brown suggest a few strategies for achieving this balance:
1. Develop an awareness of emotions – ours and theirs.
2. Don’t react emotionally – take charge of our behavior.
3. Acknowledge emotions – rather than attempt to stifle them.
4. Prepare for emotions before they arise.
2. Understanding: Learn how they see things.
It is difficult to work through problems together without understanding the other’s perspective – their view of the problem, their working assumptions, concerns, values, or their suggestions for solution. The better we understand the other’s perspective, even if we don not agree with it, the better we will be able to work together.
Fisher and Brown even suggest We cannot solve differences without understanding them. Oftentimes we are not even aware of what we do not know or do not understand. We may be fearful of learning we are wrong. Or, we may not know how to begin learning the other’s point of view. Fortunately, we can do something about each of these barriers. We can Explore their thinking – we may not know how little we know.
- Always assume a need to learn more.
- Start by asking, “What do they care about?” What are their interests? Perceptions? Values?
- Do not be afraid to learn something new.
- Be open to new information.
- Use tools to break into their world. Learn their story. Reverse roles. Use a third party.
What do you think? How have you been able to balance emotion and reason when problem-solving in your relationships? What tools have you used to understand someone else’s perspective? Share a story with us of overcoming barriers to understanding and problem-solving.
It is our desire at Fuller Life Family Therapy to walk alongside couples as they navigate through relationship misunderstandings and miscommunications. Please contact us if you would like information about our pre-marital and couple’s counseling. If you like this article, please like us on Facebook and pass it on to other couples!
Fisher, Roger, and Scott Brown. Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Resident Therapist at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute