In this article, I build on the discussion from my last article on how you and your partner can turn toward each other by describing an effective method of doing so—having a daily stress-reducing conversation.

In my last article, I explained the importance of a couple turning toward each other by making and accepting bids for connection as well as how doing so prevents the relationship-damaging behaviours of ‘turning away’ and ‘turning against’. One of the best ways to facilitate turning toward regularly is to have what relationship expert Dr. John Gottman calls a ‘daily stress-reducing conversation.’ In the following sections, I will provide Dr. Gottman’s guidelines on how to conduct this type of conversation and how doing so can facilitate you and your partner turning toward each other.

The first side of the stress-reducing conversation: The role of the speaker

The conversation need only take about five to 10 minutes. Pick a time when you and your partner can sit down uninterrupted. Each partner takes a turn as speaker and listener. The speaker can talk to the listener about anything they choose. This may include events and social interactions which occurred in their life that day, things they’re looking forward to, accomplishments and other things they’re proud of as well as problems and stressors they encountered such as difficult tasks and people at their job.

The only topics off-limits for the speaker are stressors and problems stemming from difficulties between them and the listener. The reason for this limitation is that this conversation is focused on helping the couple develop a sense of turning toward or ‘we-ness’ from supporting each other. For this reason, discussions of issues between the speaker and listener should occur at a different time.

The second side of the stress-reducing conversation: The role of the listener

The listener’s primary job is to listen empathically and support their partner with validating comments and questions while they are speaking. Listening facilitates gathering knowledge of your partner’s life which is a key element of the ‘love maps’ Dr. Gottman has found to be pivotal in having a strong relationship friendship. Supporting your partner by listening empathically also helps to build fondness and admiration—a second critical element of the relationship friendship. ‘Active listening’, as it has been called, also engenders turning toward by demonstrating powerful acceptance of the speaker’s bid for connection by responding positively to their intimate self-disclosure.

Dr. Patrick Keelan Relationship and Couples Counselling

Pitfalls to avoid for the speaker

The main pitfall for the speaker to avoid is discussing relationship problems and issues they are having with their partner, i.e., the listener. Doing so detracts from the intimacy-building, turning toward purpose of the conversation by having a discussion which leads to a ‘turning against’ mindset. When the listener hears the speaker criticizing them, their tendency to be empathic and supportive will naturally often shift toward being defensive and critical in response. I am not suggesting that either partner should not ever raise concerns they have with each other but that they should do so at a different time from the stress-reducing conversation when both partners are prepared to have a problem-focused discussion.

Pitfalls to avoid for the listener

The listener’s major pitfall to avoid is not ‘playing their role’ of listening intently and empathically. Too often clients I see in couples counselling and relationship counselling report that they’ve tried to have conversations like Dr. Gottman’s but that they don’t work. Their lack of success often occurs because the listener either doesn’t listen, gives advice when it is not wanted or even worse proceeds to disagree with their partner rather than responding with supportive comments. An example of the latter occurs when the speaker describes the stress of dealing with a particular co-worker or supervisor and the listener responds by taking the side of that individual rather than supporting their partner.

The listener should take their cues from the speaker

The listener can avoid making these mistakes by taking their cues from the speaker regarding whether and how to offer comments in response. In that regard, do not offer advice or solutions to the speaker unless they would like you to do so. It is often hard to resist offering advice because many people find it difficult to believe that simply listening empathically and offering support can be what their partner needs at that moment. Reminding yourself that this kind of active listening can by itself significantly reduce your partner’s stress will help you stay true to your role of listener.

A double-barreled positive effect of empathic listening

An additional benefit which will motivate you to ‘just listen’ is that doing so will add significantly to the knowledge you acquire of your partner and their life. As Dr. Gottman’s research shows, partners who have greater knowledge of each other have better relationship friendships and ultimately better relationships.

So although I began this article focusing on how the stress-reducing conversation fosters the ‘turning toward element’ of a relationship friendship, it actually has a double-barreled positive effect on the relationship friendship by facilitating growth of the partners’ knowledge of each other. I can vouch for these positive effects of the stress-reducing conversation from having used it regularly with clients in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist.

May you and your partner turn toward stress-reducing conversations,

-Dr. Pat