Ask Better Questions, Improve Your Marriage Improve your relationship like marriage experts do, by asking better questions. Here’s how. BY PETER PEARSON, PH.D.
You can get closer in your marriage if you understand your triggers.
There is no way professional therapists can have all the answers for every problem that shows up in their office. Almost daily I see couples whose challenges are too difficult for me to solve quickly or easily. So I have honed my ability to ask better questions when people are stuck. Ultimately, I have found that asking better and better questions is far more productive than giving bumper sticker solutions to complex problems.
I used this approach on myself with remarkable results. When couples came in with particularly complex problems, I stopped asking myself how to help them solve the problems. Instead, I began looking at how I could help them stop "triggering" each other.
You know when you say one thing and your partner responds—way out of proportion—because they were reacting to something much bigger than your benign comment or question? That kind of triggering makes difficult discussions virtually impossible. I knew that if I could work with the part of the brain that calms those triggers, couples could enjoy productive discussions and often create their own solutions.
Couples started making changes quickly. Instead of taking months, they improved in a fraction of that time. I discovered it was far more effective to solve triggering problems than communication problems because once a partner has been triggered, the discussion is over. Both partners are then stuck with looping arguments that go nowhere except to create more hard feelings.
There isn't the space in this column to detail how to manage your triggers, but here are some ways that might break some negative habit patterns in your relationship:
1. When your partner is being harsh with you, don’t ask yourself the action-oriented, non-thinking question, "What should I do about it?" Ask yourself instead, "How do I aspire to be if I am coming from my higher self in this situation?" For example, you might want to be understanding and empathic instead of defending yourself or starting a new round of finger pointing.
By focusing on how you aspire to be, what to do will become clearer. Asking yourself how you want to be in any difficult situation with your partner will give yourself more clarity and be more empowering than asking yourself what you should do.
This exercise is especially fruitful when you both identify a tough problem and then you express your goal to each other. For example, you might say something like, "Honey, in this situation, here is how I aspire to be when I respond from my higher self."
2. It's helpful if you each write out on a piece of paper how you aspire to be. For example, you might write, "When we talk about this problem I want to be understanding, empathic, curious, open, non-defensive, assertive, a good listener, etc." Write two to three guidelines for yourself. During the discussion, check your notes to help you follow your own guidelines about how to be.
Sometimes when I ask couples to do this in my office, they suddenly sound like professional communicators who have had years of training. The problem is that it takes practice to sustain the momentum. The point is, when each of you identify how you aspire to be during a difficult discussion and follow your own guidelines, you actually become extremely effective. It’s far better motivation than having someone else tell you what to do, and if you try it you’ll discover how good it feels to be in alignment with your own integrity about how you aspire to be in your relationship.
Here are some other questions to ask yourself:
* What would our relationship be like if we didn't trigger each other into defensive reactions?
* If we didn’t squander time and energy being defensive, disengaged or self-protective what could we really create as a couple and a family?
* What if we could speak candidly without fear of repercussion?
* What collaborative dreams could we risk sharing and realizing?
Frankly, I am too old to seek ways to change slowly and in small steps either in my own marriage or for couples who are impatient in their desire to make things better. If you desire rapid improvements in your relationship, we have something in common.
Dr. Peter Pearson and his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader, are founders and directors of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California. As therapists, workshop leaders, authors, and speakers, they are dedicated to helping couples create extraordinary relationships. They have been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News." For more information, visit www.TheCouplesInstitute.com.