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For Couples: Structured Communication Skills

Like learning carpentry, learning good communication is a skill. Both have subtleties and nuances. Achieving prowess in either one takes time and repetition.

If you grew up in a home where there was alot of noise, like yelling and crying, but not much calm talking…or in a home where there was alot of brooding silence, you probably weren’t exposed to skillful communication methods.

So, when there’s emotion-laden conflict, you may automatically go to yelling or brooding behaviors. You find yourself wanting and struggling to over-ride learned behaviors from your past, but you don’t have a good substitute. Structured communication is a good way to slow down emotion-driven communication. Structured communication is a simple technique to add to your skillset.

Intent of Structured Communication

The intent of structured communication is to use rules of engagement when communicating in order to slow down emotional reactions.

The structure helps both people retain their self-respect.

Structured communication gives each person a turn to listen non-defensively and also to be heard.

Here’s how to run your own Structured Communication session.

Structured Communication Exercise:


Give some thought to how you would like to come across. Be aware of your facial expressions. Be aware of your tone, gestures, how you look. Be aware of your own tendencies to withdraw or talk over others when they are speaking.

Choose a calm, kind way to open your session. Perhaps you’d like to choose and read a short poem or bring a small bunch of flowers or a favorite stuffed animal to the session. Perhaps you’d like to serve tea.

Set your intention:

Prepare to be open and relaxed and inviting

Receiver Intentions

  • actively listen to the other person.

  • attempt to not personalize what the other person says

  • try not to become defensive.

  • seeking to understand…. you are not thinking up your rebuttal. You are just listening, not agreeing, just listening

Sender Intentions

  • Use “I” statements

  • Own your own thoughts and feelings

  • No blaming or shaming

  • Take responsibility for your own involvement

Choose a place and time where you won’t be disturbed for 40 minutes or so.

Open the Session

Acknowledge the space

Take a few calming breaths to acknowledge your time and space together.


Each person starts off with a brief statement of appreciation for the other person. Maybe read your poem or bring your flowers to enhance the atmosphere.

Decide the Issue You’d Like to Talk About:

Come up with one issue you’d like to talk about this session (take turns with this). Don’t throw in the kitchen sink. Stick to the topic.

Choose who will be the Sender and Receiver First

Structure of the Communication Session

SENDER Begins: Speak about the issue from your point of view, what it is like inside of you, without blaming or shaming yourself or the other person. The goal is to respect yourself and the other

Sender Example:

  • When xxxxx happens, I feel like yyyyy

  • What I tell myself about xxxxx is yyyyy

  • And I end up feeling zzzzz

  • It reminds me of wwww

RECEIVER Reflects Back to the Sender: Role is to be a reflecting mirror. The goal is not to agree or disagree, or to form a rebuttal, it’s to listen and understand.

Receiver Example:

  • So what I hear you saying is aaaaa

  • Did I get that? You are feeling bbbb when ccccc. (Be BRIEF!!)

SENDER Refines the Message:

  • Yes, it is bbbb, but there is more…. OR

  • No, I meant ddddd

RECEIVER Asks for More Information:

  • Is there more? (or)

  • Tell me more about xxxx

Iterate the steps until

  • SENDER says “No, there is no more” then …

  • SENDER summarizes to hear him or her self

Receiver summarizes and validates Sender

  • If I heard you correctly, you said xxxxx….

  • Is that right?

  • So I can imagine how YOU would see it that way. From YOUR PERSPECTIVE, that makes sense.

Then Reverse Roles. At the end of the session, each one makes a statement of appreciation. Hopefully, there is more understanding from each participant and a softening of stances. Not all issues are resolvable or get agreement from both sides. But the goal is to open communication and reduce defensiveness, so you can move forward.


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