Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively


Ineffective and Effective
Couple Communication

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/example.htm

Updated 02-11-2015

        Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

        This YouTube video previews part of this article. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

table of contents and mail-order link       This article is one of a series describing effective thinking, communicating, and problem-solving. The series summarizes seven learnable communication (relationship) skills  that are essential for building high-nurturance relationships and resolving social conflicts effectively. The unique guidebook Satisfactions (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010) integrates the key Lesson-2 Web articles and resources in this nonprofit Web site, and provides many practical resources.       

        This article aims to grow your relationship awareness by...

  • summarizing 41 (!) common ineffective problem-solving strategies, and...

  • illustrating a typical lose-lose communication sequence between two adults; and then...

  • illustrating the same scenario in a win-win context. 

        The article assumes you're familiar with:

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lesson 1

  • communication basics and skills

  • common blocks to effective communication; and...

  • ways to improve communication with adults and kids


        Any perceived behavior in one person that causes a significant change in another person is communication. "Significant" is subjective.

        All communication aims to fill current needs - i.e. to reduce emotional, physical, and spiritual discomforts. Needs usually occur in layers, from surface needs to the underlying primary needs that cause them. Surface needs will usually recur until the primary needs causing them are identified and satisfied.

        "Win-win" communication occurs when each person feels...

  • their current (primary) needs were satisfied well enough,

  • in a way that all people felt good-enough about.

        "Lose-lose" communication occurs when no communication partner feels one or both these criteria were met well enough. Other possibilities are win-lose I get my needs met and you don't), and lose-win. Lesson 2 in this nonprofit educational Web site offers concepts and skills to promote consistent win-win outcomes.

       If people (like you) don’t do win-win (effective) problem-solving together, what do they do? See if you recognize any favorites here...

Ineffective Problem-solving Strategies

        Each communication partner can choose one or more of the conflict-responses below (a) within themselves (internal conflict), and/or (b) with their communication partner (external conflict). Until you become fluent with the skill of process awareness, your choice of responses will probably stay largely unconscious and habitual. If true, your unconscious mind (false self) controls you and your relationships, causing significant stress.

       Thoughtfully scan the common ineffective communication strategies below. Seen all at once, our buffet of possible responses to internal and interpersonal conflict is pretty amazing! Consider that we never studied any of these, but became “experts” anyway!  Option - check or asterisk strategies below that you or another important person use.

 1)  KEY: anxious, distrustful subselves disabling your true Self. This causes most of these other lose-lose responses

 2)  Denying (to Self or partner) your thoughts, feelings, needs, and/or current reality

 3)  Avoiding (lying, omitting, “forgetting”, and “walking out” fit here)

 4)  Intellectualizing / rationalizing / over-explaining / lecturing

 5)  “Gunnysacking” and “re-living” (bringing up and rehashing old unfinished issues)

 6)  Minimizing the conflict, and/or it’s importance

 7)  Deferring / not following up / procrastinating

 8)  Giving in or up - choosing a victim or martyr attitude and role

 9)  Defending / Explaining (justifying beliefs, opinions, behaviors)

 10)  Never forgetting or forgiving yourself and/or your partner

 11)  Deflecting / distracting / confusing / defocusing

 12)  Numbing and/or spacing out / “clamming up” / silence

 13)  Complaining / whining / nagging / hinting (vs. asserting)

 14)  Catastrophizing  / exaggerating / over-dramatizing

 15)  Getting sick / hysterical / depressed / enraged

 16)  “Mind reading” / assuming / second-guessing / predicting

More common ineffective problem-solving strategies...

 17) "Time-traveling” - overfocusing on the past or the future;

 18)  Threatening, demanding, intimidating, or bullying  vs. requesting or negotiating;

 19)  Attacking / blaming / shaming (“guilt trips”) / “getting even”

 20)  Discounting your Self and/or your partner’s worth, opinions, feelings, and/or needs

 21)  Pretending or disguising - e.g. laughing when anxious or hurting;

 22)  Maintaining or allowing a one-person or no-person ''awareness bubble''

 23)  Composing your response while your partner talks

 24)  Interrupting or overtalking vs. empathic listening

 25)  Confusing fighting and/or arguing with problem-solving

 26)  Competing - equating “problem solving” with winning

 27)  Generalizing - “you always… / you never…”

 28)  Preaching or moralizing - “You’re bad / good / wrong / right / when you…

 29)  Rambling - talking on and on with no awareness or point

 30)  Rehearsing - reacting now to an event that hasn’t happened yet

 31)  Addictions - numbing inner pain with chemicals, activities, moods, and/or relationships. This is a false-self (unconscious) avoidance strategy

 32)  Flooding - venting a stream of information and not pausing to let your partner respond

 33)  Dictating, ordering, and/or commanding. All these imply "I'm superior (1-up) here."

 34)  Name-calling / swearing / yelling / throwing things

 35)  Punishing - e.g. by withholding something of value or intentionally bringing up something painful

 36)  Dodging responsibility - using “we” or “you” instead of “I …”, or saying "I was only joking."

 37)  Talking to a third person or “the wall” - avoiding eye contact (another way of dodging)

 38)  Playing “Yes, but…” - a covert control game

 39)  Interrupting and/or talking over the other person  

 40)  Pretending to listen while thinking of other things

 41)  Faking agreement to avoid conflict 

         Can you think of other ways people (like you) avoid win-win problem solving?

Example - Ineffective Couple Communication

        What do some of these common ineffective communication strategies sound like? Here's an example: A custodial biofather (Jim) declares in exasperation to his new wife Rae: 

“You’re all first with me! No one comes in second! Why can’t you get that, Rae!?”

        This response came after the couple had been “talking” (i.e. arguing) in their bedroom for almost 10 minutes. The “talk” began when Jim got home from work, and his wife Rae complain that his pre-teen daughter Georgia had again ignored Rae’s requests to pick up her clothes from the living room floor. The example below omits some repetitions, and nets out their attempt to resolve their shared tensions. 

Ineffective Couple's Dialog
(neither partner gets their needs met)

Communication Errors

Rae: “Why won’t you ever get after her about picking up her messes? You never miss a chance to rag Nickie (Rae’s biological son) about not putting his dishes in the sink - but hassle or put reasonable limits on your princess daughter? Never! Clearly, your daughter remains far more important to you than I am. I’m sick of this!”
  • Generalizing; playing the victim

  • Sarcasm: implies “You’re ‘bad’, 1-down”

  • Attacking (blaming) Jim, not focusing on her needs

  • Complaining; starting to “flood” Jim with three different problems.
Jim: (Grimacing, sighing, not looking at his wife) “Rae, look - I’ve had a really long day. Gimme a break, for once. We’ll talk about this later.”
  • Avoiding (eye) contact: (Rae decodes this as ‘you think I’m not important now’ - i.e. “I’m 1-down”)

  • Attacking; dictating; avoiding; deferring
Rae: (sarcastically): “Yeah, sure. That’s what you always say, Jim - only later never comes. And why am I always the one who has to bring up these problems - you don’t! For you, everything’s always la-la fine.”  
  • Distrusting; discounting; blaming; shaming

  • Attacking; exaggerating; generalizing; de-focusing (bringing up a new problem)
Jim: “Well how come when I ask you to get Nick to turn his boom-box down after dinner, you always give me ‘the look’, and tell me I’m (falsetto mimicry) ‘just being too picky’? Your son has the sensitivity of a fireplug.”
  • Not hearing; arguing;

  • Counterattacking (defending);

  • Deflecting the focus to yet another problem;
Rae (shaking her head, snorting): “You seem to have gotten us off the main problem again. OK, I’ll try it one more time.

       "I want you to act like a father for a change and talk to Georgia. Get her to show a little responsibility in this house by picking up her litter around here.

       "I am getting really tired of being just the maid here, and coming in last with you, behind your job, your daughter, and Nina (Jim’s ex wife)! This isn’t what I signed on for! I never thought …”
  • Blaming; not hearing; deflecting back again;

  • Martyring; discounting both Jim (the person) and his needs, via words, voice tone, and body language; (implication ‘you’re 1-down’); attacking Georgia; implied vague threat; generalizing;

  • Exaggerating; adding a new problem: Rae’s true need to feel respected;

  • Dramatizing; flooding;

Ineffective Couple's Dialog

Communication "Mistakes"

Jim: (glaring): “Read my lips, Rae: You - are - all first - with - me! No one comes in second! Why can’t you get that!?”
  • “Arguing”: [interrupting (i.e. not listening) + not focusing + defending (explaining) + counterattacking]: implication: “I’m 1-up”
Rae: (Shaking her head, sighing loudly) “Oh, I give up! I can never get through to you.” She turns angrily and walks out of the bedroom.
  • Blaming; generalizing; complaining;
  • Giving up (overwhelmed);
  • Unaware of resolution process
Jim: looks after her, shaking his head in irritation, weariness, and frustration.
  • Avoiding; giving up (overwhelmed too); silent blaming and denial.

        Notice what you’re thinking and feeling now. Anything sound familiar here? This is a classic stepfamily loyalty conflict, where the bioparent feels in caught the middle of a frustrating, impossible lose-lose situation, and the stepparent feels painfully “second best” (i.e. disrespected and unimportant), and usually guilty for “forcing” their mate to choose. Did you identify with Rae and/or Jim here, or neither? Why? Did either of these people get their needs met?

        Though this bit of typical (lose-lose) marital dialog is brief, it illustrates a lot:

  • Neither mate identified what they really needed, or stuck to it, though Rae tried;

  • Neither really tried to hear the other non-judgmentally, as a partner;

  • Neither Jim nor Rae thought to change their focus to how they were trying to problem-solve. As they each felt increasingly unheard and frustrated. they got more and more tangled in a growing knot of unmet needs (discomforts or “problems”);

  • During the exchange, neither mate felt respected by the other - i.e. they each decoded "1-down" R(espect) messages from the other. So their communication process added to their unmet primary needs, vs. reducing them;

  • Each mate unconsciously used many ineffective resolution strategies to re-create a predictable communication sequence causing these lose-lose outcomes:

1)  Neither partner filled their communication and other needs;

2)  They diminished their mutual trust that “talking” together (on this loyalty-conflict issue) would “work” (fill their needs). Their expectations of "communicating well about the kids" ratcheted down another notch, so the next time they try, they'll expect it not to work. That becomes self-fulfilling, with unaware mates...

3)  Jim and Rae both unconsciously added this incident to their respective “gunnysacks” of "unfinished marital business" (old hurts and resentments);

4)  They each repressed their hurt, anger, and frustration, which “leaked out” later in their relations with Nickie and Georgia - adding to their kids’ unspoken family discomforts and anxieties; and finally …

5)  Rae and Jim’s relationship suffered another injury.

        When enough injuries accumulate, ineffective resolution sequences like these promote relationship decay, separation, and divorce. Does this seem valid to you? Could this happen to you partners, over time?

        From long unconscious habit, this average couple each tended to find fault with their partner, rather than agreeing “let’s do some win-win problem-solving together soon, when we’re both up for it.” Unaware, they never got past problem-level two.
 Are you wondering “What would this have sounded like if they did ‘problem-solve effectively”? Let’s take a look...

Replay Using the Lesson-2 Skills

        Jim comes home from work, tired, and goes to their bedroom to change clothes. Rae joins him there, greatly frustrated about her stepdaughter’s messing up the bathroom and ignoring Rae - again. In this example, both mates have worked together for months to become aware of loyalty conflicts and their conflict-resolution style.

        They’re now used to switching between what is bugging one or both of them (the topic), and discussing how they try to resolve their problems (skills: awareness, metatalk, and empathic listening). Neither partner did this before their remarriage, nor did their respective parents.

Effective Couple's Dialog  Awareness Observations
Rae: “You look pooped, Hon
  • "=/=" (mutually respectful) attitude in action;
Jim nods and snorts, “Yeah. They seem to have put more hours in this day than usual. I am tired! How’re you?"
  • Feels acknowledged; gives feedback;

  • Acknowledges his wife (=/=)
Rae grimaces, and says with humorous sarcasm: “Well, brace your Self, dear. I’m re-ally upset - again. It’s replay 118 of our favorite stepfamily loyalty conflict, starring us and Georgia.”
  • Vents, and returns an “=/=” message.

  • If Rae had said with cutting sarcasm “starring…your daughter”, or “…my wonderful stepdaughter”, Jim probably would have immediately felt attacked and defensive.
Jim rolls his eyes, and groans wearily. “Oh, yuk, Rae. What now?
  • Genuine listening, despite weariness and a little apprehension; implied R-message to Rae: “your feelings and needs are genuinely important to me right now.”

Rae: “I really need to talk with you about it, Jim. Are you up for that now, or do you need some time to unwind?
  • Respectful “=/=” attitude again, based on Rae’s trust that Jim will willingly focus with her on their loyalty conflict when he feels less distracted by work issues and weariness.

Jim is silent for a moment. “Thanks. I think I’d be a better player if I took a breather before we talk. How ‘bout we take a walk after dinner - maybe over to the park?
  • Guilt-free Self-care in action, based on Self respect, and trust that Rae is genuinely willing to defer her need to talk, out of respect for his needs. He also trusts that if she can’t wait, she’ll say so now.

  • “=/=” reassurance; Jim proposes a specific (kid-free) time, rather than a vague “Let’s talk about it later, OK?” (implication: “I will work with you on this tonight”)
Rae nods thoughtfully, unsmiling. “OK, Hon, that works for me. But I really need something to change here, Jim!
  • Flexing co-operatively on her (communication) need for immediate discussion; Re-emphasizes her needs to vent and problem-solve (cause change)
Jim looks into her eyes, and nods. “Yeah, well … let’s take another swing at it after dinner. Do you need some help with feeding the tribe now?” 
  • non-defensive acknowledgment;

  • Shifting clearly to other current co-parenting needs with light humor
Rae nods, and sighs. “Yeah, I do. That’d be nice.” She moves close and they hug wordlessly for a moment.  
  • Mutual non-verbal affirmation and support as true teammates;
        After dinner and clean-up, Rae and Jim see that the kids are into their homework. They tell Nick and Georgia they’re going to walk their spaniel Raquel to the park. 

        Jim adds “We’re working on another loyalty conflict, guys, so stay tuned. We’re probably gonna need your help. We’ll be back in about 45” or so.” 

     The couple firmly deflect questions from the kids about this and other issues.

  • Co-parenting teamwork; deferring marital problem-solving to reduce possible emotional distractions from concerns about the kids. The kids know what a loyalty conflict is from prior talks;

  • Respecting the kids’ needs to know what’s going on, and to feel included: =/= attitude;

  • Staying focused; Demonstrating to the kids that their remarriage is a mutual high priority now;
They leave, Raquel pulling eagerly on her leash. After a few moments, Jim says: “OK, Lady R. What’s up - or down?  
  • Jim invites problem-solving indirectly, and keeps his promise to work with Rae tonight. He doesn’t pre-judge, and prepares to listen;
Effective Couple's Dialog  Awareness Observations
Rae sighs, reviewing her day. “You can guess. I am really  ticked with Georgia - again. She left her towel on the bathroom floor, her breakfast dishes all over the kitchen, and after school she managed to deposit half her wardrobe all over the living room. Nickie sees her doing this, and I …
  • Venting: factually (vs. dramatically) reporting the source of her present frustration

  • Now dramatizing and exaggerating

  • Starts to de-focus

Jim raises his free hand. “Whoa, whoa - I think you’re bringing up a second problem. Sounds like you’re real frustrated again that Georgia messed up our house, and you need something from me about that.” He looks at Rae’s profile, as the street lights come on.
  • Awareness: staying focused on one issue.

  • Empathic listenting: Jim restates objectively what he hears, and what’s implied about Rae’s current surface need;

Rae: “Thanks. I was starting to confuse our issue - I’m so worked up about this… And yes, I do need something from you about Georgia. We’ve struggled with this so often, Jim … I’m feeling really discouraged.  
  • respectful, non-defensive acknowledgment as a teammate, not an opponent;

  • factually owns her current surface need and feelings, vs. denying and/or attacking;

Jim:You’re weary of this old hassle, Rae, and you don’t see a good way out, for now …  
  • More empathic listening. Implied message: “I understand, value, and accept  your feelings and needs here, Rae
Rae nods, looking away.
  • She feels respected and empathically heard by her husband (vs. agreed with)
Jim: “So let’s problem-solve, OK?” Rae nods again. “Can you say what you need from me here?  
  • Invites their shared resolution process;

  • Consciously avoids an instinctive male response to fix ‘Rae’s problem’ immediately (implication: “You can’t solve this: I can, and should; I'm "1 up")
Rae: “I’ll try. It’s hard, Jim. There seems to be so many pieces to this … Uh,…I need … to find some way of motivating Georgia to respect my need for order and neatness in my home space.

As her stepmom, I don’t feel right imposing a lot of consequences on her yet. It’s so different with Nickie…  

  • Rae uses “I need” (ownership) vs. “you need…”, which is 1-up mind-reading and dictating;

  • Struggles to get clear on her surface need (“order and neatness in my home …”);

  • Begins to describe two other problems: co-parent role-confusion and feeling powerless...
Jim nods, having heard versions of this before. They pause while Raquel investigates a bush.

So basically, Hon, you’re feeling disrespected and ignored again by my daughter, and, um… real frustrated, and powerless … because you’re not Georgia’s Biomom

  • Consciously uses awareness to avoid (a) getting de-focused on the two new problems, and (b) acting on his instinctive urges to defend Georgia and himself, blame Rae, and start offering explanations and/or solutions (whew!); and ...

  • Jim empathically (=/=) estimates Rae’s primary needs, which are to feel “I have some power and choices here: I don’t have to be a victim in my family and my home”;
Rae looks at Jim, and nods. Her voice is less sharp and intense. “Yeah, Hon, that’s good. That feels real close.”

Jim (genuinely interested): “So is there more?  

  • Rae’s emotions are calming because she feels clearly heard and accepted (i.e. respected, and important to her husband.

  • Again intentionally deferring his growing need to vent his side, because from prior experience, he trusts Rae to listen soon;

Rae: “Well, yes. Yes there is! It really bothers me, Jim, that you don’t get as upset as I do about this. I feel like the Queen Grinch all the time. Another part of the problem is that when Georgia’s with her Mom, anything goes.

       There are no rules! I mean Georgia’s being taught that it’s perfectly normal to hang your underwear from the ceiling light, and leave a can of peaches to rot on the kitchen counter … I dread every time Georgia gets ready to vi…

  • Feels heard, safe, and respected;

  • Stays focused on describing her surface needs (vs. defending or attacking Jim);

  • Begins to (a) gunnysack (bring up a cluster of related unresolved problems without focusing), to (b) flood (non-stop venting); and to (c) blame and (d) complain about Georgia’s biomom Nina.
Jim’s voice gets firm. “Rae, stop. Slow down! It feels like we’ve got about four problems going now, and the list is growing. Let’s go back to what you need from me about Georgia’s not respecting you - OK?  
  • Asserting as an =/= teammate;

  • Blocks Rae’s “flooding” respectfully;

  •  Uses =/= (vs. blameful) refocusing;
Rae clutches her head and shakes it, laughing. “Awright, awright, Dr. Freud. I was getting a little carried away there. But those other problems are real, too,

       Jim. I need some problem-solving with you on Georgia’s visitations, and on me feeling more and more like the wicked witch of the West, too. And, uh, also on my worry that Nickie’s picking up bad habits from Georgia and her Mom.

  • Non-defensive acknowledgment of Jim’s invitation to focus and continue. Rae's true Self remains in charge;

  • Restating three other problems, and emphasizing that they’re significant to her too; (deferring, not giving in);
Effective Couple's Dialog  Awareness Observations
Jim crouches and talks to Raquel, who looks startled. “Well, girl, I hope you’re in shape. Looks like we’re gonna be taking a lot of walks together …
  • Instinctively using humor to re-ground them both and lighten the mood; His true Self is in charge too.
Rae smiles, and strokes Jim’s shoulder. “I am so glad you’re willing to listen to me about all this stuff, Hon. It makes it a lot easier for me.

        When we talk, I don’t feel so … alone.” Their eyes meet for a long moment. “Do you think there’s some way out of all this?  

  • Loving, assertive affirmation from Rae’s heart; Jim’s problem-solving patience and motivation are acknowledged and nourished;

  • Non-verbal intimacy, strengthening their mutual feeling of partnership here;
Jim: “I dunno, Babe. But if not, it sure won’t be for lack of us trying! It’s … hard for me, too. Uh, are you in a place to hear my reactions, or d’you need to spew some more?  
  • Remarital commitment, =/= communication awareness,  patience, co-leading their resolution process;

  • Jim starts to assert his feelings and needs, testing Rae’s current “done-ness”; uses awareness and metatalk. 
Rae: “Well, I feel pretty well heard, for now, Jim. I want to know what you need, now. About Georgia’s ignoring me. No, I mean about my feeling ignored by her.” She grinned.
  • Focusing, and continuing their joint resolution process;

  • Rae takes responsibility, vs. blaming stepdaughter Georgia.
Jim:I feel a lot of stuff, Rae … Frustration that we haven’t found a way through this yet, and sympathy for you.

        I know Georgia can be pretty self-centered at times, but she’s just a normal kid, and a good one! Any teeny-bopper’s going to leave a litter trail, you know? I mean last Tuesday, Nickie …

  • Consciously avoids blaming, counter-attacking, and defending;

  • Empathizes with Rae’s feelings …

  • Begins to defend his daughter and “normalize” (even out) Rae’s reaction to Georgia by starting to focus on “equal” littering by Rae’s son (defocusing, starting to bring in a new dynamic);

Rae snorted. “My turn: now I think you’re bringing in another issue. Stay on track, OK? I feel your main points just now were that you’re frustrated with our loyalty conflict, too - and you feel Georgia’s a normal, good, pre-teen kid.
  • Respectful assertion; guiding the resolution process by refocusing;

  • Empathic listening: restating Jim’s point concisely, without rebuttal or comment.

        So far in this example, the couple has just begun to get mutually clear on what Rae’s primary (vs. surface) needs are: to ...

feel respected by stepdaughter Georgia, husband Jim, and herself;

feel she has some power and control in her home and life, vs. feeling like a victim,

protect her marriage (i.e. protect her and her son's securities, and avoid loss and old-age aloneness), and to ...

evolve some credible plan of action with her partner with hope of getting her other three needs met “soon enough.”

        The couple has just started on the next step: getting mutually clear on what Jim’s primary needs are.

        Notice your reactions to all this: anything like

“This seems like a lot of work!”

“These steps are too complicated.”

“This is a farce - couples just don’t talk like this!”  (Why?)

We sure don’t sound like this!”

“We could never do this …”

"My partner wouldn't care about or try options like these."

"The example doesn't bring in what the stepdaughter's biofather wants." (true, for brevity's sake)

        If your self talk sounds anything like this, it may indicate that a well-meaning false-self is controlling you. Ask yourself “What would have to happen for me to start thinking like …

"The way to accomplish big projects is to break them into manageable tasks and prioritize them."

"Other couples communicate effectively, and so can we."

“We can learn to do our version of this problem-solving process well enough, over time.”

“Our kids are depending on us to develop and model an effective way of resolving personal and social conflicts  (filling needs) - and we CAN.”

"We can help each other learn the seven Lesson-2 skills and useful techniques, over time."

        Effective (win-win-win) problem-solving begins with your basic attitudes and expectations!

Effective Couple's Dialog  Process Observations
Rae snorted. “My turn: now I think you’re bringing in another issue. Stay on track, OK? I feel your main points just now were that you’re frustrated with our loyalty conflict, too - and you feel Georgia’s a normal, good, pre-teen kid.”
  • =/= assertion; guiding the resolution process by refocusing;

  • Empathic listening: restating Jim’s point concisely, without rebuttal or comment.
Jim: “Thanks, Rae. I was starting to defocus." He sits quietly for some moments, trying to get clear on what he needs ...
  • Jim hears and acknowledges Rae, and takes genuine (vs. strategic) responsibility for his behavior, non-defensively;
Jim: “Well, first of all, I need both you and Georgia to be happy. So I need to work out a compromise here with you and her so that we all feel OK enough. And, uh…, I need to find a way to stop resenting you both when I feel stuck in between you two.”
  • Articulates a fundamental surface need,  and a generic solution.

  • Takes responsibility for a second problem (“I feel stuck..” vs. “when you two stick me in the middle”)
Jim: “You need Georgia to take more responsi-bility about …, no. You need Georgia to respect your need for order in our home.” Rae nods, listening. He continues “I’m used to her messes, so they don’t really bother me as much as they do you. I grew up in a messy house, and so has she.”
  • Refocuses himself,

  • Restates his perception of what Rae needs, and…

  • Clearly states a relevant values conflict between him and Rae non-defensively.
Jim pauses thoughtfully again. “I think my biggest need now is for more info. I need the three of us talk together soon about this lousy loyalty conflict.

I’d like to be with you when you tell Georgie what you need, and have us both learn what she needs. Then I think we’ll be in a better place to all try for a win-win compromise."

        A plane drones by overhead, and a cool breeze stirs the park foliage around them.

  • Defines a current primary need;

  • Proposes a trial solution, honestly expressing his frustration and weariness;

  • Acknowledges that Georgia has needs, and proposes respecting them too (=/=);

  • Consciously avoids making a black/white demand of his daughter to please his wife, or “punishing” Georgia for being “disre-spectful” (i.e. Jim uses awareness).

Rae: “Mm. I wouldn’t have thought of that, Hon. I’m feeling so hurt, resentful, and frustrated, all I could think of was “getting even,” or having you side with me and really landing on her hard. Trying to  get through to her!”
  • Reports and acknowledges her emotional Self-focus without guilt or shame (Self affirmation);

  • Implies (a) affirmation of Jim’s needs for information and compromise, and (b)  agreement with his trial solution;

Both: “So when should we meet?” They chuckle and smile at each other in the dark. Raquel (their Spaniel) lifts her head and stares at her people, ears alert.
  • Thinking and speaking like =/= teammates;

  • Exchanging non-verbal appreciation, affection, and affirmation;
Jim: “One option is to include Georgie on that decision. We can tell her tonight that we need another three-way, because we have a loyalty conflict to fix …” Rae chortles sarcastically “She’ll be thrilled!” He grimaces. “Yeh, really.”
  • Starts to brainstorm a specific group problem (picking a mutually-good time to meet). They’ve all done this before.

  • Rae’s resentment is still alive and well, but it doesn’t “hook” Jim;
Rae: “So, what if she says she won’t?”
  • Foresees a resolution-process problem, and invites strategizing together;
Jim: “I think we should tell her we need her help - which is true! If that doesn’t work, I’ll have to pull rank and make it a demand."
  • Proposes an =/= assertion as a couple, with a less desirable backup plan.

  • Supports Rae by taking responsibility for his daughter’s attendance.

Effective Couple's Dialog   Process Observations
Rae: “Yeah, I agree.” She brushes a wisp of hair from her eyes. “Then I guess I should use an I-message about … uh …how her leaving the towel on the floor, and dishes not rinsed makes me really angry.”
  • Begins to draft her part in the problem-solving meeting with her stepdaughter and husband;

  • Considers using an assertion tool to state factually how Georgia’s actions affect her.
Jim: “Would it fit OK to say those things make you resentful? I worry that ‘angry’ would hook her defensiveness, and her hearing’d turn off.” Rae nods. “Yeah, that’d be better.”  
  • Both take their time and seek the best way - as co-parenting partners - to make a win-win-win compromise happen. They focus on the problem and resolution process, not on attacking the girl or each other.
Rae: “By the way, I think we need to explain to Nickie that this loyalty conflict really doesn’t involve him. You don’t need him at this meeting, right?”
  • Considers Jim’s and her son’s needs, and whether her son’s presence would hinder or help their resolution meeting;
Jim: “No. I think you’re right, Hon - he’d probably distract Georgie by getting a giant smug attack.” Rae grimaces and smiles. “So let’s get back to the ‘I’ message. How will you say what you want from her?”  
  • Rae feels heard and acknowledged as an equal partner;

  • Jim refocuses on their resolution process, and leaves Rae responsible for stating her need to Georgia;

Rae: “OK, I say …‘Georgia, when you leave your wet towel on the floor, and the washcloth on the sink, I feel our bathroom’s a mess. Then I feel I have to pick up after you, or nag you.

    Either way, I start to resent you. I don’t like that. I want to find a way to solve this with you without it turning into a big power struggle.” Rae looks at Jim. “How’s that sound?”  

  • Rae shows her experience with assertion by (a) picking one incident at a time, and factually describing both (b) Georgia’s behavior, and (c) how it affects her (Rae);

  • Rae doesn’t plan to force a solution on Georgia, blame her, or punish her. Instead, she visions inviting the girl to brainstorm some (unknown) solution with her, trying to respect her needs equally (an =/= attitude).
Jim puts his arm around his wife and hugs her. “I like how that feels - like respectful of her and you together. How’d I get so lucky, eh?”  
  • Rae feels acknowledged and loved;

  • Jim avoids becoming the “fixer,” (rescuer)  and implies he’ll support Rae’s lead here.
Rae: “We’re not done yet. If Georgia does her normal ‘I don’t know…’ or ‘well, I don’t have any ideas’ numbers, I can’t brainstorm with a non-partner…”  
  • Again, using history and a little sarcasm, Rae forecasts possible paths their meeting might take, and invites brainstorming.
Jim: “Two things: first, that’s when we use empathic listening and then you repeat your I-message.” Rae nods.

    “Then if she doesn’t pitch in, I’ll say I also need her to be considerate of the three of us in picking up after herself. Maybe we need a hamper in the corner…” 

  • Proposes using two of the seven communication skills (empathic listening and assertion) if Georgia’s resistant; 

  • Jim affirms his support for his wife, and jumps ahead in the resolution process, seeking a solution that would work for everyone.
Rae: “And who’s job would it be to empty this hamper so we don’t get mildewy?”  
  • Begins to lose focus and forecast a different problem;
Jim: “Whoa, Hon - one thing at a time, OK? I guess I’m jumping the gun, too.”

    He looks at his watch. “Let’s stick to just planning our loyalty conflict meeting. It’s getting a little late.”  

  • Refocuses, owns his own responsibility, and avoids trying to predict or control the meeting’s outcome;

  • Begins to shift to fill unspoken surface needs: “let’s see that the kids are OK, and have done their homework.”
Rae: “How time flies, etc., eh? You know, I feel pretty beat now, Jim. I don’t think we should talk to Georgia tonight.

    "If she is willing to problem-solve, I’d rather be more alive. How ‘bout we ask her now to meet with us right after dinner tomorrow?”

  • Rae factually acknowledges her distraction, (‘I’m tired’), and proposes a specific alternate time (vs. “let’s meet soon”) when their meeting has a better chance of succeeding.

  • She suggests a specific alternative, rather than dictating or imposing one (implied message: “I’m 1-up”).
Jim: “Good call. Oh, but Rae, I think she has Drama Club after dinner tomorrow…”  
  • Joins Rae in trying to pick a suitable time for all three of them.

        For brevity, we’ll stop “observing” to Jim and Rae’s process here. Note these  key points in their dialog:

  • Acting as mutually-respectful teammates, including neither partner discounting themselves;

  • Helping each other to stay aware of their resolution process to avoid getting hooked into these common alternatives;

  • Helping each other to identify and stay focused on one problem at a time;

  • Respecting Jim’s daughter's (Georgia's) needs equally with their own;

  • Knowing and using effective-communication basics and skills appropriately;

  • Choosing to take a lot of non-distracted couple time (in this case away from their home) to work together toward a win-win resolution of  their family loyalty conflict. Implication; both mates genuinely (vs. dutifully) rank marital problem-solving (need fulfillment) high among their respective priorities;

  • Verbally and non-verbally affirming and confronting each other dynamically, as they work toward resolution; and …

  • Acknowledging their respective current needs (discomforts) without apology, guilt, or shame. 

            Rae’s surface need is keeping their bathroom neat. The primary needs beneath that are to feel...

    • respected by her Self, her stepdaughter, and her husband;

    • heard and supported by her husband, and...

    • in charge of her own home. Rae also needs to...

    • guard against her son's feeling ignored and unimportant, and to reassure him clearly this loyalty conflict doesn’t involve him (so far).

        Jim’s surface need is to “fix” the conflict between his wife and his daughter without damaging any of their three relationships. His underlying primary needs include...

  • keeping his self respect (integrity),

  • reducing his anxiety and some misplaced guilt about this loyalty conflict, and...

  • staying balanced and grounded: i.e. to keep this conflict in perspective, and balance working on it with other current personal, stepfamily, and work goals and tensions.

        I suggest you re-read the first half of this example to increase your awareness of the differences between effective and ineffective problem-solving. Review the steps of effective problem-solving, and identify if and when each step occurred in the win-win example. Note that we didn’t go far enough to see if everyone (including Georgia and Nickie) got their primary needs met.

        Notice also that the two communication-process examples were presented in two columns. The left column was a sequence of events (what Rae and Jim did and said). The right column non-judgmentally summarized the communication process that was unfolding in and between them.

        This is what the skill of awareness reveals. What could you learn if you partners tried out non-judgmentally assessing a recent conflict-process between you and your partner in the same two-column way? A more thorough way to assess is using communication-sequence maps.

        Note that lose-lose and win-win communication happens all the time among the dynamic subselves that comprise your personality. Restated - you can learn to use effective-communication basics and skills between your wise, resident Self (capital  "S") and other subselves for win-win outcomes! Try it!


        This article illustrates key themes in ineffective (lose-lose) and effective (win-win) communication between a typical stepfamily couple. Their surface problem is a loyalty conflict with the husband caught "in the middle" between his second wife and his custodial daughter.

        Each mate, and the stepdaughter, have a group of underlying primary needs (discomforts) promoting this conflict. In the second half of this example, the partners try to identify these and resolve them as mutually-respectful teammates, vs. adversaries.

        For more perspective, see these articles on "avoiding couple karate," and these options for improving adult communication. Overall - continue studying and applying Lessons 1 and 2!

+ + +

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering that question - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

 This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

Share/Bookmark  Prior page  /  Lesson-2  /  Print page 


site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact