Communication is vital in any relationship. Understanding can be created and perhaps any hurt can be healed provided people can be kept in communication with each other. Therefore communication and problem solving are key areas to be considered when dealing with couples counselling.

The counsellor’s aim here should be twofold:

  1. To help clients acquire skills and practice in communication and developing and maintaining affinity and rapport.
  2. To help clients acquire skills and practice in dealing with conflict situations that are getting out of hand.

Research has shown that openly expressed anger is not a factor in the deterioration of relationships. Instead it is contempt, belligerence, and defensiveness that bring about the deterioration. Where feelings and opinions are not openly and clearly expressed things go downhill.

Where there is a clear expression of feelings and opinions, even if this is done in anger, there can be a de-escalation of negativity (Gottman, et al, 1998). Furthermore, active listening is not necessarily an element in conflict resolution. Not surprisingly, couples find it difficult to paraphrase, summarise and validate their spouses feelings in the heat of an argument. Active listening and the associated skills may be of most use in preventing conflict and maintaining understanding and affinity; a more specialised approach may need to be taken with conflict itself.

If a healthy expression of emotion can clear the air and lead to resolution of problems, then it would be of benefit to coach the couple, as needed, towards assertion and the open communication of feelings and needs. Then as they progress into their relationship they have at least been given them a reference point, something they can look back on. And they can always see the counsellor again for a refresher course in these skills.

Having interacted with the clients by now on a number of occasions the counsellor will be in a position to assess their need for some coaching in relation to their speaking, listening and conflict resolution skills. What sort of listeners are they In interviews with them, a counsellor could ask one to paraphrase what the other has been saying, then repeat this exercise with their partner. Has one of them drifted off? Have they put their own interpretation onto what they heard their partner say?

It might pay to look into how the listening style of each person developed. Were they listened to in childhood? How has this affected them in the present? Are they talking a lot to compensate for not being listened to when they were younger? In general is there a pattern in their communication, and is there anything that is either dysfunctional or that has the potential for future conflict? What sort of arguments have there been between them, how did they begin and if they were resolved, how was this done? Are they bringing anything with them of note in these areas from their family of origin?