15. Learning Healthier Communication - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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15. Learning Healthier Communication

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > DownRelRabbitHole- Assessment

Down the Relationship Rabbit Hole, Assessment and Strategy for Therapy
(to counter poor communication in stages 1 & 2)

Healthier communication would include: learning more direct communication styles, to interpret indirect communication correctly, to get in sync with communication between or among individuals, to express more clearly the emotional components of communicate, and to own the emotional underpinnings of communication.  These are the foundations of much of humanistic "American-style" couple therapy.  For example, Mirgain & Cordova (2007) identifies three sets of processes for positive communication that partners can work on: Emotion Control Codes, Skillful Identification and Communication of Emotions, and Empathic Skill Codes.

Emotion Control Codes
Benign control in delivery. The extent to which a partner engages in behavior that softens the delivery of an emotionally negative message.  How careful is this person being with his/her partner's feelings?  The conflict issue or frustration is expressed softly and in a nonthreatening manner.  The person expresses needs, desires, and/or genuine hurt.  Tries his/her best to be understood without threatening partner.

Benign control in receipt. The extent to which a partner manages his/her hurt, irritation, or anger by responding positively or neutrally to a negative message from his/her partner.  To what degree does the person stay engaged, open, and receptive to his/her partner's message?  How open is this person to hearing his/her partner's complaint?  At its best, this has a quality of leaning in rather than away (or attacking) and being open to being influenced by the partner's complaint/hurt feeling.

Aggression control.  The extent to which a partner engages in poorly controlled aggression.  The person may be mad, but not attacking, degrading, or swearing.  In general, the anger is directed at the partner's behavior or events, and is not directed at who the partner is as a person (e.g., "I'm mad that you forgot our anniversary" vs. "You are an inconsiderate selfish idiot").  The emotion skill involved here is being able to express anger in a way that is conducive to the long-term health of the relationship.

Eliciting positive emotions. The extent to which a partner actively elicits positive affect from the other partner to maintain or reestablish a positive connection while discussing a problem.  Both verbal and nonverbal efforts to maintain and sustain a sense of positive connection with the partner.  This can be summarized as ways of communicating that "even though we're talking about something difficult, we are still okay."  Mostly this in done by smiling at the partner at various points during the interaction or interspersing the conversation with positive comments or comments intended to lighten the mood.

Expressing positive emotions. The extent to which partners are skillful in expressing positive emotions.  How comfortable is the partner in expressing positive emotions such as happiness, love, affection, joy, and contentment?

Lack of Defensiveness. The extent to which partners respond to the hurt of complaints or criticism by becoming and remaining defensive.  High scores are given for the absence of chronic defensiveness.

Expressing Nonhostile Negative Emotions. The extent to which partners are clear in communicating nonhostile negative emotions, including sadness, anxiety, despair, fear, and hurt (page 988-89).

Skillful Identification and Communication of Emotions
Identifying and Communicating Feelings. The extent to which partners mention positive or negative feelings by name, directly revealing the affective experience of the speaker.

Empathic Skill Codes
Perspective Taking.  The extent to which partners communicate that they see things from their spouse's point of view.

Empathic concern.  The extent to which partners communicate that they are experiencing feelings of sympathy and compassion for their partner. (page 989)

Working on such areas or skills is often, the most fun and simplest for the therapist to activate, but only if the individuals have not progressed or devolved into the more problematic stages of relationship.  The therapist needs to assess whether what is often for American psychotherapy is considered "healthier" matches very well with the cultural orientation of each person.  One or no partner or family member may hold the same standards as the therapist.  In such cases, it may be more prudent to consider and integrate more behaviorally oriented therapy that is directive (such as homework assignments).  Less severely conflicted relationships may only need support with the therapeutic aspects that focus on communication.  They would already be emotionally connected, taking responsibility, and aware of own injuries and empathetic of the other's pain.  Non-mainstream American couples or culturally mixed couples and their families will often require a more sophisticated and eclectic approach to the therapy.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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