Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Category: communication


Could just one question really save your relationships? It could, depending on the state of things. But the time to “save” your relationships is not when the ship has already sunk. The question I want to share with you is about saving them from sinking in the first place, which means that it works best when you are still above water.

Even so, this question is useful in nearly all circumstances, since it will give you just a moment to review what you are up to with your communication. Sometimes that “pause” can be the difference between making it or breaking it!

So let’s find out what I am talking about…

THE QUESTION: As a therapist who focuses on relationship issues, I notice that many clients want to know the “why” of another’s behavior. “Why did they do this? Why did they do that?” While these are understandable questions, I am always looking for whether a question will lead one on a journey of discovery or to a dead end. “Why” questions may get you a reason, but what do you do with that information? You might feel better knowing another’s intention IF they actually share it with you, but I notice that these answers rarely lead to greater understanding. Besides, questions starting with “why” can often come across as critical.

The questions I suggest is actually not about the other, it is about you! Without further ado, here it is:

“What is the purpose of what I am about to say or do?”

WHY THIS QUESTION WORKS: Remember how I mentioned the “pause” earlier? Well, this question requires a pause, because we have to think about the answer. When we are feeling upset, our left brain is often “off-line” and we are motivated by our feelings. This can backfire if we then say something meant to create distance rather than closeness.

When we ask what the purpose is, we trick our brains into bringing the left brain back online so that we can think of an answer! This alone can be enough to prevent us from saying something regrettable later on. Additionally, it causes us to review exactly what we are up to at the moment. If you truly want to hurt someone, then you will go ahead and unleash your fury. But if your want someone to know that you are hurting or upset, then you will express yourself differently and talk about what is going on with you.

HOW DOES THIS CHANGE WHAT WE SAY/DO?: Most people I know don’t want to push those they love away. But we do this if we feel that we won’t be responded to in a caring way. If getting a caring response is your goal, then clarifying that purpose will influence your actions. Instead of criticizing or withdrawing, you might say something like, “I am so angry at you right now, and I really want you to hear me out so that I don’t get angrier!”, or, “I would like to talk with you about something that is bugging me before it becomes a big issue.”

Statements like these have a better chance of being responded to positively than critical statements. If your purpose is to be heard, have someone understand you better, diffuse resentment or anger, re-connect, clarify a boundary, then you will be best served knowing that and acting/speaking accordingly. All it takes (with practice!), is taking a pause to ask yourself, “What is the purpose of what I am about to say or do?” This question focuses on your actions, not what the other is doing, and can change your communication from being distancing to being connective. It will also give you a good shot at getting what you really want from another. In other words, it works!


It would not be an exaggeration to say that nearly every couple who comes to see me talks about wanting to “communicate better”. When I ask them what they mean by this, I often hear, “We want to stop fighting and understand each other better.” Okay!

Why is this so hard for people to do? If it were easy, they would not need to come see me! It is easy if you know what to do and what not to do, but unfortunately we are not taught these things. I suspect that this is because there is a myth that if someone loves you, they should know what you need and want. This can happen, but certainly not all the time! What do you do the rest of the time?

Here is a quick primer of how to increase the chances that when you need to communicate, it will be received and understood by the listener:

REDUCE OR ELIMINATE CRITICISM: The most important task in communicating more effectively is to eliminate criticism. Criticism only succeeds at pushing the other away from you, or inciting criticism back toward you. It NEVER works if your goal is to connect and build trust!

If you hope to reduce criticism, you have to learn to recognize it either in yourself or in the other. Walter Brakelmanns defines criticism as including a judgement and a demand. So if you say, “I am angry because you left the towels on the floor”, this is not a criticism! It is simply an emotion connected to a person and an event. In order to be a criticism if would have to include a judgement and a demand, for example: “I am angry at you for leaving the towels on the floor! You are a slob for doing this–knock it off!” The italicized part is the judgement and demand.

The best way to reduce this from happening is to notice when you are getting overly agitated, and stop engaging. Research has shown it takes about 30 minutes to regulate back to normal, so let your partner know that you are too upset and you want to revisit the issue in half an hour or more after you have calmed down. If you notice your partner getting upset, you can be the one to suggest a break.

DON’T BE DEFENSIVE. INSTEAD, DO THIS: There is a way to respond to criticism that is key to avoiding a fight, and it takes some practice because it goes against our natural urge to defend when attacked. Defensiveness, like criticism, does not work if you want to resolve anything. But there is an alternative to staying silent.

If you are criticized, try to find out what the other is feeling underneath the criticism. Remember that criticisms signal that someone is hurt or upset, and as a result they often want others to hurt as well. Not fun! Instead, get interested in what the hurt is about. The challenge with doing this is to put aside your own desire to attack back or defend. This takes practice!! I always suggest to my clients that they practice this around smaller issues and not wait until a big problem happens.

Using the previous example, it does not really matter if you left the towels on the floor (unless you are problem solving, but that is another article!), so practice “taking it on”, and then get curious. Instead of arguing that you didn’t leave the towels, you could say, “When I did this, what happened to you?” If you stick with finding out what the other is feeling inside, you will be surprised how quickly they stop talking about the towels.

REQUEST INSTEAD OF DEMAND: Our “go-to” when we are frustrated is to tell someone what to do. Problem is, it rarely works! Requests have a much better chance of being met with cooperation! I notice that people resort to demands because they have sat on a need for a while, and now that need bursts forth as an angry demand: “Stop doing that!” Since demands are a part of criticism, you can imagine the results.

Requests succeed because they “invite” the other to accommodate, or make a change. Lasting change only happens if one wants to change, not because they are told to. But remember that the nature of a request is that it may not be granted! If it is not, then you have a chance to either accept that, or talk further about how you feel.

The benefit of learning and practicing these three skills is that they can turn conflict into a constructive event, rather than a deconstructive one! ALL relationships have conflict, but it is how you have that conflict that determines whether you get closer or further from the one you are engaged with. In my practice I work with couples and individuals to help them master these skills, and stop what doesn’t work! Try these out for yourself and watch your communications skills grow!

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