Validation: How to Coach the Speaker

Help Someone Speak to Their Spouse

One of the big challenges that we see couples experiencing is that one or both of them don’t feel understood. One person feels that they communicate something, but the other person just doesn’t get it.

Sometimes it’s true, the other person doesn’t get it. Sometimes they understand it very well, but they react poorly. This leads to escalation, arguments, fighting and disconnection.

Once, I was at work and I was speaking with a colleague. The colleague was upset about an issue and came into my office and started to unload. They were very critical and demanding. I understood that this was an emotional issue for them, but they weren’t handling it well. I’m sure that all of you can think of a situation like this.

The advantage that a couple has is that they can set up agreed upon rules for speaking with one another. They can agree on rules both the speaker and the listener.

There are some common rules that we use when we coach couples.

Rule #1: Start Softly

Dr. John Gottman, one of the top marriage researchers in the world, found that he could predict the likelihood of divorce by watching the first 3 minutes of a conflict discussion. One of the findings was that arguments that start harshly usually end up harshly.

If the speaker can agree to soften their start-up, they have a much better chance of finding a better outcome.

Rule #2: Take Ownership

Speak for yourself. This means using “I” statements. When someone expresses how they themselves feel, it’s much less likely to come across as critical.

“I feel disrespected when you don’t clean up the dishes.” That comes across as much softer and the focus is on what the speaker is experiencing.

“You don’t clean up the dishes.” That statement is much more likely to raise defensiveness. That is especially true when accompanied by “always” or “never”.

Take ownership for your own thoughts and feelings.

Rule #3: Keep Statements Brief

When we coach couples, we often ask one of the partners to express their thoughts and feelings to their spouse. It feels so good to speak sometimes that it’s common for someone to talk nonstop for several minutes. Often times, we’ve seen people bring up multiple issues.

When this happens, the listener, whom we’ve asked to paraphrase, gets an overwhelmed expression on their face. Sometimes, they are honestly willing to repeat back what they heard, but they don’t know where to start. They’ve heard too much.

We ask the speaker to keep their statements brief so that the listener can be effective at paraphrasing what they’ve heard.

Rule #4: Focus on What Works For that Couple

Couples can define what works best for them. The objective is that the two of them figure how to communicate and listen to one another.

We were talking about this once in a small group. One of the couples explained that when one of them started to escalate an argument, the other would wave their hand in a “keep it down” type of gesture. It was a reminder to the speaker to be softer. Another person in the group spoke up and said that that gesture would set them off. That gesture wouldn’t work for them.

Some people don’t like to talk about serious issues late at night. Other people prefer it. That’s when they are most open to it.

I’ve seen some couples that want to have some serious conversations while they take a walk together. It helps them to stay focused on the conversation, instead of being distracted by things at home. Other couples have stated that it’s better to sit down at a table and talk.

What works for one couple doesn’t always work for another couple. The couples can set their own rules!

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Explain These Simple Rules – Couples often don’t have any practical guidelines that help. These rules can help them to have more productive conversations.
  • “I” Statements – Be sure that they are using “I” statements. These statements are less likely to trigger the other person.
  • Help Couples Find What Works – Their rules may not be your rules. That’s OK.

Other posts you may find valuable:

Validation: How to Coach the Listener

Coaching Validation: What We Look For