Relationship Skills for Couples

Relationship Skills for Couples Coaching, Part 1.

When couples come to me for coaching, there are several basic tools I find indispensable with regard to creating an expectation of success in the relationship.  By the time people come for coaching, the situation is that one or both parties have crossed some threshold.  In other words, one or both people have already decided, at least emotionally, to leave the relationship.  That makes it harder.  One of the first outcomes in couples coaching is to bring the individual(s) back across the threshold.  The odds for success in these cases are not good, but then again, the couple has not separated yet so there is some chance that what I do will make a difference.

Back Across The Threshold

More often than not, a major issue is that arguing has become hurtful, if not destructive.  Generally it is out of control and both parties tend to think they have tried everything already.  Getting them to agree to try again is a challenge.  However, as soon as new skills are integrated the perspective changes.   Each will have to do some things they may have already tried before, and from the new perspective, they are likely to get different results.

Reframing What You Have Already Tried  

As the coach, my first strategy is to establish that ‘arguing’ can be constructive.  I challenge the notion that argument is bad.  After all, if the couple cares enough about each other to argue, that person cares about something.  I put forth the idea and then consistently back it up with metaphors and reframing.  Once the new belief is taking root, I assert that in immature relationships that every time there is a disagreement that the relationship goes into question.  I then suggest and future pace the notion that mature people in relationship reach a point in which the foundation of the relationship becomes strong enough that little things no longer challenge the relationship.  The foundation is strong enough that the relationship is no longer threatened.  It is possible that the agreement will carry the relationship past any obstacle at that point and it gives a way of measuring success.  Both people need to agree on the goal and imagining that future gives a way to notice successful progress.

Re-Associating To The Original Attraction

I most often anchor the future paced states of success in the relationship through a set of questions that are designed to allow the couple to remember what brought them together in the first place and anchor those possibilities in the positive future of the relationship that has been established up to this point. The evidence procedure is that the resourceful past before the time the troubles started can now equal the future and therefor can be anchored back into the present.

Installing New Skill Sets

Now my job as a coach is to teach some skills that can be very useful in achieving the outcomes above. My Total Win Negotiating Model offers skills that work as well in the Fortune 500 executive boardroom to create alignment as with couple trying to save a marriage.  Anchoring states is critical in either case.

The old saying that is best to ‘never go to bed mad’ at each other is a good one.  Couples get into trouble when they don’t neutralize of squash negative emotional experiences.  The wife who dents the fender of the family car, tells her husband about the incident and what he sees is her face associated with a negative emotional state.  His negative reaction leaves her in an unsresourceful emotional state.  Then the income tax is due and the negative association gets stronger.  When the husband sees the face of the person in his life for whom the he absolutely knows he loves and cares for, he begins to notice that he can no longer access the good feelings he is sure he should be able to have.  Then another event occurs and another, and if there’s not some way of neutralizing those feelings, the relationship is on the way out and will be over soon.

Neutralize Negative States

The simple NLP-based solution is to never let those unresourceful states build up in the first place.  Find a way to change the focus to something that carries a positive resourceful state for both people and anchor that state.  “Honey, remember the time we went to the lake and watched that great sunset from our cabin.”  Make sure the unresourceful emotional state is replaced by or at least neutralized by anchoring positive experiences from the past or future.  How will you know?  Look for the subtle physiological cues like relaxation, a smile, or open gestures.  Remember to pick events that won’t be harmful to you if you no longer feel as strongly about them.  This is because a possible side effect of using a positive emotional experience is that it could potentially change the strength of that emotional representation.  When you neutralized the unwanted feeling, you may neutralize the positive resource too.  This technique is better for preventing problems states from building.  The idea is to stop the damage before it builds up.  Then it going to be be easier to start cleaning up the old past damage as the habit of using the Sincere Apology skill-set gets firmly in place.

Clean Up The Past With A Sincere Apology

So, how do you clean up old emotional residue in a relationship?  A Sincere Apology is the master tool skill-set that seems so simple you might have thoughts about how it could work so effectively.  Performed well, a Sincere Apology is like a secret weapon in your communication arsenal.  It is also an important step in building the Total Win Mindset.  A Sincere Apology or ‘Clean Up’ is a potent method for cleaning up emotion at any level of relationship whether in the boardroom or bedroom.  In business, I label this model Organizational Clean-up.  What if you could handle a relationship like a good wait-person does at a high end restaurant.  A messy relationship can be like a meal where you can not see the white table cloth because the dishes and debris from 4 courses are cluttering the space.  It may be hard to even find the dessert and coffee among the clutter on the table.  The excellent wait-person comes between each course of the meal, clearing the dishes, and scraping the crumbs from the table.  A sincere apology can do the same thing. The more issues you clean up with people in your personal and business life, the cleaner you feel inside. Make it a daily habit and your whole life will begin to feel clean. Here are the four (4) steps to a Sincere Apology:

  1. Apologize stating what occurred.  Be specific. Use the words, “I apologize.” or “I’m sorry.”
  2. State the impact you had (or think you may have had) on the other person.
  3. Commit to the short term correction. “You can count on me to…”
  4. State the long-term outcome you want for the relationship.  Speak the future you want into existence.

Trouble-shooting The Clean-Up

What most people don’t know how to do is to be congruent, confident, and sincere when they apologize.  Of course, since most of us tend to think we are not at fault in the matter.  We’d rather be right or we avoid the apology altogether because it seems like apologizing would be synonymous with admitting guilt. Sometimes we we think it will make us seem weak and others will take advantage of the weakness.  Take another look at your situation.  It takes strength to take responsilbility.  Yes, someone might take advantage of your vulnerability, but its more likely to other person will view youa human and feel more rapport.  Also. the truth is, you can always find something legitimate to apologize for in a given situation.  Regardless of who caused the breakdown, a sincere apology can be a way of finding out if there is something that needs to be cleaned up.  If you even think there might be a breakdown; err on the side of doing the apology anyway. You have a much better chance of cleaning things up.  All parties also have the basis for being free to communicate clearly without the need to defend. You are well on the way to building a Total Win Mindset.

Listening Requires Attention Outside Yourself

There are two important points to understand in this paradigm.  One is to have your focus of attention on the other person.  This could be termed ‘listening.’  Most of us listen from inside our own frame of reference, but excellent communicators are great listeners.  They have their attention on the other person in order to know the next thing to do in an interaction.  They are getting better quality data than you will get from inside you own head. You are missing important data points when your attention in only on your own experience and you probably don’t even know it.  Get your attention on the other person so that you have better data.

Your Impact Has Nothing To Do With Your Intention

That shift makes the second part of this possible.  It’s about the impact you are having on the other person.  Most often in a misunderstanding, one party is trying to get the other person to understand the point of view they are coming from, but it is usually without first making sure the other person experiences that you are understanding their point of view first.  The point I am making here, is that the behaviors and strategies you are using are probably intended to some good purpose, but are not being received that way.  You have to listen from the other person’s point of view first to begin to understand how your actions are actually being experienced.  There is often a disconnect here.  People just get positional and more and more defensive.  Pretty soon there’s not foundation for mutual communication.  It’s not safe.

The Meaning Is The Response You Get

Consider this.  A man tells the woman in a relationship, “I love you” and he buys her flowers.  How can that be a bad thing, he is thinking.  However, he missed her birthday while playing cards with buddies.  The actual argument occurs after the the flowers arrive.  He thinks he did everything right in order to make amends, but what is she saying?  Looking back on the conversation, she probably complained that when he said he loved her, it was just to get back in her good graces and that he doesn’t respect her or really care about enough about her.  Whatever he says or tries to do at this point is heard as condescension.  “You don’t respect me.”  His intention was to do the right thing, but what she hears is something altogether different.  Again, it’s not safe and it is difficult to be loving and connected while feeling she needs to protect herself.

If what you are doing is not working and you don’t know why, instead of trying harder to be heard and thinking you are right, here’s a simple exercise that might shed some light on the situation.  It requires that you get into the other persons’ point of reference instead of only your own.

Second Position Exercise

Pick an event where it didn’t go well with someone. (Could be a personal or business relationship)

1. As you think about this moment in time as if it were a movie, you will notice it seems to have started somewhere, had some content in the middle, and you can find an ending point where you are now standing on the last frame of the movie.  When it didn’t go so well, how did that leave you feeling? Where is that feeling in your body? Notice where the other person was, what they were doing and saying.

2. In a moment, I will ask you run the movie again, but with new resources.  This time you will be the other person.  Imagine you are able to be inside the other person looking out, seeing what he/she sees, hears, and feels as the movie runs again as it did before.

3. OK.  From the end, standing on the last frame, run the movie backwards to the beginning. Run it fast so that color in the frames of the movie begin to blend the colors from one frame to another.  Allow the voices go backwards until you are back at the beginning, just before the movie started.

4. Now put yourself into the other person.  That’s right, be them.  Now start the movie over again, this time noticing what you learn about how the you in the movie is behaving and pay attention to the insights you get about what you could have done to make it work better for the person you are now being.

5. At the end of movie, stop it, standing on the last frame.  Take a moment to evaluate the impact you actually had and compare against whether it was what you intended.  Consider some new choices in how you might better generate the impact you do want in the future. How many other relationship issues might be affected by this insight?

So. to recap what we have covered in this article, Part 1.

  • Come Back Across The Threshold
  • Re-establsh Outcome
  • Reframe
  • Build Resources – Anchor Positive Feelings From Original Attraction
  • Clean Up Damage With Sincere Apology
  • Neutralize Negative States – Keep it Clean
  • Listening Skills

And to Future Pace Parts 2 and 3. Look for the next newsletter to find out about more about future Pacing, The Total Win Mindset in Principled Negotiating, Parts Integration, and Values Elicitation and Alignment.

Article by Bill Thomason

For NLP Couples Coaching sessions call 602 321-7192.