Why Communication Skills Aren’t Fixing Your Relationship Problems, From A Couples Therapist
In my workshops for couples, we spend a lot of time learning and practicing communication skills meant to help navigate conflicts with more ease. But the truth is, communication skills alone can’t stop arguments from erupting or escalating.
That’s because, for most of us, the moment when a conversation turns tense is also the exact moment when all our communication skills fly out the window.
Our brains enter what I call “the red zone,” a space where effective communication becomes nearly impossible.
Understanding the red zone
On a trip to Mexico a few years ago, I was walking from one building to another when I saw a creature off in the distance that looked like a horse. Curious but unbothered, I continued my approach. As I got closer though, I realized I was actually about 20 feet away from a very large cougar.
The cougar looked directly at me, and I looked at the cougar. My mind went blank, and my body began to move on its own. Without thought I began to slowly, quietly step backwards toward a nearby building. Only once I safely closed the door behind me did I start shaking and fully registering what had just happened.
This is exactly what happens when we’re in the red zone. Your partner comes to you with a question or concern—“Did you forget to pick up the groceries?” or “Why didn’t you tell me my sister called and wanted me to call her back right away?”—and suddenly, to your brain, they’re the cougar.
Our neurobiological reaction to perceived threats (physical or psychological) is to enter a state of fight or flight. Our heart rate spikes, our muscles tighten, and our focus narrows. That narrowed focus is the critical piece here: As the cougar approaches, I don’t wonder why the cougar is there. I don’t register if it appears to be young or old, perceive the beauty of its fur coat, or consider whether it’s actually likely to attack me. I am not thinking at all. I am fully in fight-or-flight.
While this response helped our ancestors escape real physical dangers, in today’s world it can make it hard to navigate stressful conversations with anything other than lashing out or defensiveness. Our ability to see the big picture and the details vanish when we’re in this state, as do any of those non-native communication techniques we read about on the internet that one time.
Think of the human brain as being divided into different parts. There’s the modern, more developed part of the brain that’s able to handle complex ideas and emotions, perceive nuance, and process new information within the broader context. Then there’s the older part of the brain, which is sometimes referred to as reptilian. When this more primitive part of the brain takes over, all inputs boil down to one question: Are you going to eat me, or am I going to eat you?
There is no creativity. There is no empathy. There is no problem-solving. There is only fighting, or escape.
That’s the red zone.
What happens when we try to communicate while activated
Being in the red zone makes compassionate and effective communication difficult, if not impossible. If our partner asks us why the dishes aren’t done, and our brains perceive that as an attack, we can unconsciously enter into that fight-or-flight mode where there is no thought.
Suddenly we can no longer answer the question without lashing out, tensing up, or shutting down. A simple question turns into a whole argument.
Or consider the common scenario where a couple gets into a hard conversation, and both are feeling fed up with the other. “I want to keep talking about this, but you’re not even listening to me,” one says.
“I’m listening!” The other snaps back. “Just tell me.”
But they’re not. Because they’re in that heightened state of activation, their active listening skills are turned off. They may go on to hear the words coming out of their partner’s mouth, but rather than processing those words from that empathetic and creative part of the brain, they simply react to the words by challenging them (the “fight” response) or attempting to escape blame (the “flight” response). And forget about communicating any of that with kindness.
In order to be able to truly listen and respond well, our body needs to be at ease and open to connection. We need to see that other person as someone we can safely engage with and who we want to get closer to again—in other words, not as a cougar.
How to get out of the red zone
It’s critical to know if you have crossed into the red zone during a conversation with your partner (or anyone you hope to build a close relationship with), so that you can avoid escalation and tap back into the calmer part of your brain.
Recognizing when you’re in the red zone requires adopting a practice of self-observation. There are physical cues that signal you’ve gone into that heightened, fight-or-flight state, such as an elevated heart rate, tightness in your chest, or shaky, irregular breathing. You can also reference the tone and tenor of the conversation: Raised voices, harsh words, and feeling attacked or agitated are all signs that one or both people may have entered the red zone.
Once you realize you’re in the red, it’s time to take a pause to calm your nervous system. This might look like taking a few long, deep breaths to get centered before proceeding with the conversation, or it may look like taking a break to do something grounding like taking a walk, doing a quick stretch, or sitting outside to feel the breeze.
The goal is to bring your heart rate back down, so you can regain access to that more thoughtful part of your brain that’s capable of creativity, empathy, and problem-solving.
Healthy communication starts with approaching each conversation from a place of openness, and that requires actively exercising self-awareness. It’s vital to check in with yourself to see if you’re in the right state of mind to engage with your partner kindly and thoughtfully, especially when it comes to difficult topics.
Our fight-or-flight response naturally goes off when faced with stressors, but the good news is, managing that response becomes easier the more you practice it. Then from that calmer headspace, you can focus on truly trying to understand your partner’s perspective, validating their emotions, and working towards resolution.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.