Sometimes people come to couples or family therapy thinking that the goal of therapy is figuring out who is “right.” Two people come in with different perspectives, hoping to leave with one perspective. Sometimes that’s not possible, but it doesn’t mean it has to be the end of a relationship.
Successful therapy does not mean that people need to agree. However, people often struggle with the assumption that only one person can be “right.” As a therapist I look at the big picture to understand where both people are coming from, and what they’re having a hard time hearing.
When working with couples and families each person brings valid points to the conversation. It can feel threatening when one person brings up a valid point because the other person may assume that it invalidates their own feelings. However just because one person has a valid point doesn’t alter the validity of the thoughts and feelings of another person. This is a concept many people struggle with.
Acknowledging validity of what someone is saying makes it possible to disagree without conflict.
Acknowledging what someone has said doesn’t mean you agree with them. When you repeat back to someone that they have said, it shows that you cared enough to pay attention to what they have to say. This is not the same as agreeing with what they have said. When someone feels that what they have said is heard then it opens them up to hearing a different perspective.
It can be helpful to use phrases like, “I hear you saying…” or “What I understand is…” or “It sounds like…”. These phrases, followed by a summary, help reflect to the person what they have said in order to make sure you have heard it. This clarification can be very helpful for identifying miscommunication. It’s very common for pieces of information to be added on or left out.
Person 1 might say “I’d like to spend more time with friends.”
Person 2 might hear “I don’t want to spend time with you.”
These miscommunications are very common and come in a variety of forms. The more intense the emotions of the situation the more likely miscommunication is to occur. Therapy slows down the conversation to develop awareness of these miscommunications for clearer communication to occur. Clear communication can diffuse tension and allow for resolution, even when there isn’t full agreement.
Sometimes people just want to be able to have their own opinion separate from their family. In a parent child session, the adult son stated, “I don’t think you trust me to decide what’s best for myself.” For the son, agreement from the parent isn’t necessary, it’s being heard and understood that’s the priority. The ability to respectfully disagree creates a sense of safety and strengthens relationships. When the goal is to be heard instead of trying to convince the other person you’re “right” the threshold for success is much lower and easier to attain.