Introduction for Couples: The Art of Conversation is a homework tool I developed for couples in my therapy practice. It's a structured exercise in which one person (Person A) gets to talk for 20 minutes about any issue she wishes while her partner (Person B) asks specific questions designed to help her see parts of herself she could not have seen without Person B's help. When 20 minutes are up and couple has had a chance to talk about their experience, they switch roles and start over again.
The Art of Conversation works as long you’re both calm enough to think straight. It will not work when either of you is too hurt, too angry, or too agitated. That’s when you’ll need to rely on other tools, like The S.T.O.P. Strategy (which you can download for free), or The OuchKit. Both of these will help you disengage in a crisis and reconnect from a better place. The Art of Conversation is perfect tool to use after you’ve both calmed down and are ready to talk face-to-face.
Homework: Your homework assignment is to practice The Art of Conversation for one hour, at least once between sessions. Be sure to switch so both of you get a chance to be Partner A and Partner B. Use The S.T.O.P. Strategy or The OuchKit, to disengage if things start to heat up, and try again when you’re both feeling calmer. What this exercise is about: •Learning how to talk to each other so you both feel cared about and understood at a deeper level. •Learning how to ask questions that lead someplace new. •Experiencing benefits of listening without an agenda, and speaking without fear or anger. •Learning how to bring out best in each other.
How this exercise works: 1. Choose roles. Person A will bring up an issue that’s important to her (or him), and Person B will ask Person A questions about it.
2. Pick an issue. The first time you do this exercise, choose an issue that’s important to you personally--something you’re struggling with or something you care about that’s got you stumped--but not an issue that's particularly touchy between two of you.
Example: I’d like to talk about my problem with overeating. Every day I say I’m going to do something but I can’t seem to follow through.
Save more difficult topics for your second or third round of this exercise, after you’ve both gotten a feel for how and why this exercise works.
3. Have a conversation. Have a different kind of conversation, following rules on next two pages. Sample Questions and Tips for Person B can be found at end of this article. 4. Debrief. When Person A feels finished, or 20 minutes are up, first round ends, and two of you get to talk about how process went: A) How did each role feel and what was hard or easy about it? B) What did your partner do or say that you liked, and what didn’t you like? C) What did you learn about a) yourself, and b) your partner?
5. Remember: Both of you are doing something new, so you both need to talk about what happened during exercise.
6. Switch roles. Switch roles and do whole exercise all over again.
7. Write down what you learned. Each time you do this exercise write down what you learned.
On surface, this exercise is going to look like two people having an ordinary conversation. What makes this exercise different from ordinary conversation are rules.
The Rules: For Partner A: Answer questions honesty, with as much openness as possible.
Be gentle, even if some of your partner's questions seem contrived, provocative or off base. One way to do this is to think of each question as if it’s an intriguing clue that may lead to hidden treasure. When you approach questions this way---instead of in a “Why do you want to know?” frame of mind---defensiveness goes down and your search for answers will usually lead someplace new.
Set limits. If your partner slips out of character and starts giving advice, offering suggestions, or making judgments, it’s your job to bring them back by saying something like, “Thanks for trying, but that sounded like a judgment. Could you ask me again in a different way?” or “Can we go back to that question about . . .? I think I was getting somewhere.” The same is true for questions you’re not ready to answer or are just plain uncomfortable with.
Give positive feedback. It’s important to get in habit of noticing and telling each other what you like so you can both do more of it.
Ask for a break if you need one. If you start to get tired or notice your mood slipping, don’t be shy about telling your partner. John Gottman’s research on couples has shown that couples that know how to disengage when their conversation starts to go sour, and reconnect when both people are in a calmer state, stay together and report greater satisfaction in their relationships. Usually, half an hour to an hour is enough. During your break, it’s okay to go off on your own, but if you’ve taken a break because you’re upset, it’s your responsibility to calm yourself down by taking a walk, doing some journaling, or listening to calming music. It’s also your responsibility to restart exercise with a check-in that lets your partner know what’s happening. If you have feedback that might help your partner help you, now is time to suggest it.
For Partner B: Ask questions without an agenda. In legal terms, this means avoiding leading questions---questions that already contain or imply an answer. Leading questions are conversation stoppers, because your own agenda is always felt even if it isn’t always stated. Questions that come from desire to understand--rather than desire to influence---are door openers that allow your partner to look at world with fresh eyes.
Listen deeply to your partner’s answers. This will help make questions you ask more subtle, more interesting, more informed--the kinds of questions that reveal your unique knowledge of your partner and your shared history. Questions that demonstrate this kind of listening often include bits of information that only you---or you and your partner may have.
Example: I’m confused. You say you want more time to paint, but it seems like whenever I suggest it, you come up with reasons why you can’t. I’m wondering if you’re really okay with idea of being an artist, or if maybe you don’t think I’m really okay with it?
The goal here isn’t to be right, it’s to raise issues that show you’re paying attention. It’s as if you’re both detectives trying to figure out which clues are important.
Be a mirror for your partner. Make statements about things you’ve noticed (as in example above), offer hunches, or paraphrase what you think your partner has just said. The main thing is that even while your questions start ball rolling, direction it rolls should be driven by your partner’s needs, not your own.
Take correction gracefully. If your partner corrects or re-directs you, say “Thanks for feedback.” Period. Correction can be hard to take, but learning to accept feedback cheerfully is critical to learning how to be a better partner, friend, parent, and lover.