How To Improve Relationships And Communication

Dr. John Gottman has been conducting marital therapy research for over 25 years ( and is a well-respected leader in the field.  Although the interpersonal problems may include a different type of relationship (i.e., with a parent, child, coworker), the principles of Gottman’s theory can still be applied.

In studying couples communication patterns, Gottman has identified markers of conflict that result in disruptions in the relationship.

Harsh Startups – Starting a discussion in a way that does not make the environment conducive to talking about tactful ways to approach a problem. These might include one or more of the following behavior:

High physiological arousal – Getting emotionally overheated

Not accepting personal influence – Not accepting your part in the argument or not accepting the other person’s needs or wishes

No repair attempts – there are no attempts in the conversation to try to repair the relationship

Escalation – Emotions escalate and there are no compromises

Any of these markers are not conducive to helping resolve issues in a relationship and create gridlock where neither person is getting their needs met. The first step is to become aware of what is going on in your relationship and then you can start to avoid these pitfalls.

Changes in communication patterns

Once you are aware of the pattern of conflict that occurs when trying to communicate with others, small changes can be tested out to see how they work at reducing conflict.  You can try the following:

  1. Move gridlock to dialogue – The first thing is to start talking and becoming aware of your “crazy-making” buttons and your communication patterns.  Everybody has a trigger when something is said and it really gets to you and you begin to escalate.  Often when someone knows us really well, they are also well aware of what buttons to push to make us upset (i.e. “You are just like your mother!”).  These are buttons that should be avoided as they always lead to escalation in an argument and they don’t bring anything to trying to understand how to resolve an issue.  Also, when talking about an issue it is best to discuss one issue at a time.
  2. Soft start-ups – A good place to start in trying to change communication patterns is to use a soft start-up or a tactful way to bring up a problem.  Often when we are upset, we don’t think about what we want to get across to the person.  Putting aside your feelings about the issue – what is it that you need to tell the other person?  Now think of a way that you could tactfully bring this up with the other person.  One way to help to soften a start-up is to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes, what would be a way that you could introduce the conversation without making them defensive or hostile?  How would you want someone else to introduce the conversation to you?
  3. Soothing your physiological arousal – When we feel strongly about something often times our physiological system becomes activated.  It is important to be able to relax the body so that you are not constantly reacting to the other person and thus, forgetting about the issues at hand.  This might include deep breathing or other relaxation exercises.
  4. Reminding yourself of your own influence – You are reacting to the other person and they are responding based on their reactions to you and thus, there is mutual responsibility and influence.  Often times even when we know we have some responsibility, we won’t admit it to the other person, because they have hurt us and it is a form of retaliation.  Often times when you admit your responsibility, however, the other person will also admit their responsibility.
  5. Compromise – What aspects of the issues are you willing to compromise on?  What aspects of the issues are you not willing to compromise on?  Compromise can only occur when both people give and take so this needs to be negotiated.
  6. Ending an argument – It is just as important to end the argument in a tactful way, as it is to start an argument.  Before walking away, think about whether the issues are resolved.  If they aren’t you either need to keep talking or agree to take a break and re-approach the topic again at a later date.  This is also a good time to check in on your mood.  You will have been experiencing a lot of feelings throughout the argument, how do you feel after the argument?  You can use how you feel as an indicator of whether the issue is resolved or it still needs more work.