Getting Together 5: Communicating as Equals

Getting Together, Part 5 – Communicating as Equals

Couples often struggle with 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 fifth in our series on Getting Together.

The first post introduced six elements of a good working relationship. The overriding theme in each element is: “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 final two ingredients.

5. Persuasion, Not Coercion: Negotiate Side by Side

Fisher and Brown introduce this section with Aesop’s fable of the wind and the sun. The sun challenged the wind to a contest to see which could get a man to take off his coat. The wind tried to blow the man’s coat off with a strong gust of wind – but the man only drew his coat tighter. The sun beamed down warmly. As the man grew warm himself, he removed his coat and enjoyed the sunshine.

A common tendency is to try to force our way into winning an argument. The way we negotiate can seriously damage a relationship. When we use coercive tactics, emotions get heightened and reason gets diminished. It often becomes impossible to come to mutual understanding. We tend to find the other person less trustworthy and may feel that our values and desires have been rejected or ignored. Instead of attacking the problem together, side by side, coercion attacks the person. We commit early to our own viewpoint rather than staying open to the other’s perspective. When one person has to win, the other ultimately loses. Exploring the interests of each person is a good way of opening up options for compromise. To do this we have to get out of either/or mode and look for multiple workable options.

6. Acceptance: Deal seriously with those with whom we differ

We may fall into the trap of rejecting rather than accepting the other as an equally valid part of the problem-solving effort. We reject the other physically by leaving the room, slamming a door, or hanging up the phone. We can reject another psychologically by blaming, belittling, or rejecting the other’s viewpoint as worthy. These errors make it much more difficult to communicate effectively, understand each other’s view, foster trust, or persuade.

Instead, Fisher and Brown suggest that we accept unconditionally. We may not accept the other’s values, perceptions, or conduct, but we treat the other person with respect. They feel that they are being treated as an equal. We behave as though we genuinely care about the other person, above and beyond the conflict and our opinion.

Putting all of these communication principles into practice is much easier said than done. We often have some unlearning to do. It takes practice to break out of cycles of negative interaction. If your relationship (or a friend’s) could benefit from relearning how to communicate through conflict in a way that enhances the relationship, we at Fuller Life are happy to walk through that process with you. The form on the front page of the site is a great way to get in touch with us.

Fisher, Roger, and Scott Brown. Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Scott Rampy, M.MFT, LMFTA

Resident Therapist at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute

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