In the course of individual or couples therapy, and in workshops, we offer assertiveness training – how to express thoughts and feelings in a way that invites your partner into an open, collaborative dialogue; and how to listen to your partner in a way that shows empathy and understanding.
As part of that training, we offer tools – including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness – to help you maintain perspective and regulate emotion, so that you can experience a greater sense of clarity and well-being as you communicate effectively.
These capacities involve learned skills. The strange thing is that no one formally taught most of us how to communicate! How were we supposed to develop these skills? We encourage clients to see counseling – not as a sign of pathology or failure – but as an educational opportunity to acquire important life skills that were never offered in a clear and concise way, with sufficient support to encourage growth.
Managing stress reactions is a critical element of good communication. Many people already have some good communication skills, but have difficulty enacting them under duress. When the classic “fight or flight” reaction takes over for one or both partners, an escalating adversarial interaction is often the outcome. Our vulnerability to the stress reaction has to do with the way the brain is organized and processes perceived threats. It is a primitive response set that is not helpful in a social situation that requires higher level communication skills. The good news is that both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness techniques can help us head off stress reactions before they take hold, and to recover quickly from stressful interactions when they do occur.
Assertive communication involves learned skills – such as “I” statements, active listening, and process comments – some of which you may be familiar with, and others that might be new. You can learn what to do in the communication process – and what not to do. For example, common pitfalls in adult to adult communication where there is conflict, involve the communication of judgments or directives. While this “parent to child” form of communication may be quite fitting and feel good to both adults in some situations – for example when one adult asks for help from another and the process is perceived as respectful and nurturing – when adults are in conflict it seldom works and usually leads to escalating, mutually alienating interactions. You can learn to simultaneously stay connected in a feeling way to both yourself and your partner; express yourself clearly as well as listen; and monitor the quality of the communication process so you can discern when it is on track, and when it starts getting reactive and it’s time to take corrective action.