Relationships work is one of my favorite areas for individual counseling. Individual therapy provides clients the space to explore their interpersonal history and communication styles. Clients can apply valuable insights to their relationships, then watch love transform long-held patterns. Love can heal and resolve, but only if communication in the relationship works.
Finding effective ways to help individuals improve communication is a fruitful path in therapy. Communication and conflict are the vehicles for change in relationships. A recent book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments, published by Keith Wilson describes healthy conflict. This practical, down-to-earth book outlines 14 clear strategies for couples to practice and improve the effectiveness of conflict communication. It's the kind of book you'll hand to your clients and say "Read this and come back to session with how you applied it". Clients can work on opening the heart, softening their approach, compromise and timing. A certain magic comes from the combination of applied insight and skills.
Ever heard the saying 'a team is only as strong as its weakest player"? When clients bring relationship conflicts to individual therapy, we may feel like we are only working with part of the team. While individual therapy can bring change to relationship dynamics, a brief consultation with a loved one can help if we get stuck. A 'communication check-in' can be a helpful tool for relationships work in individual counseling.
I've framed a "communication check-in" as an opportunity for my client and a loved one to strengthen healthy communication. First, the client and therapist collaborate about the plan and structure for the check-in sessions. Then, 1-3 sessions focus on reviewing strengths, skills and practice about healthy communication. The goal is to firm up communication and spark healthy conflict resolution.
Inviting a loved-one for a communication check-in helps with insight into hidden skills, forgotten stories, and taken-for-granted knowledge. It gives you a new vantage point from which to help your client. The client may be telling you ‘there is only so much information I can say- we need another perspective”. This kind of conversation is a little different from family or couple’s therapy. The focus is on support and connection to improve communication for your client.
Here are some ideas about a communication check-in, based on collaboration with clients and partners about what has been helpful:
- We invite a helpful person into the room to gain perspective, support you and unlock some new understanding. "Kind of like getting to another level on a video game- we can do more at this kind of session- we have more tools at our disposal".
- The individual client and therapist decide ahead of time about the topics that will be discussed. We can come up with an outline of how we want the session to go. We can plan on the number of sessions to meet.
- Set one session to review how ideas and skills are working. Problem-solve and set new goals if needed.
- People usually tell me their main concern from these type of meetings is that it could feel like two people ‘gang up’ on one person. The idea behind planning session ahead of time is making sure that doesn’t happen. In fact, what happens most of the time is that all three people in the room can ‘gang up’ on the problems that impair communication instead.
- Identify ahead of time about questions to ask. Here are some ideas:
- What is going well about communication during conflict? What are some strengths already involved in how you communicate?
- Tell me about a time when you got through an argument or challenge and felt good about how it worked out.
- What do you like about how the two of you compromise together on something?
- What are some of __’s qualities that have you really appreciate during a conflict?
- How committed would you say you are to making changes in communication on a scale of 1-10? How committed do you think your __ is?
- What would you like to try between now and next time that would really improve your connection to each other?
Solution focus, support and skill building are the priorities during these sessions. Time limits, structure and brainstorming help the client and a partner build on what they already know and practice. Do you have ways of integrating support from a loved one into individual therapy? Leave a comment below!
Wilson, K. R.(2015). Constructive conflict: Building something good out of all those arguments. Rochester, NY: The Narrative Imperative Press.
Amy Rosechandler, MS, LMHC is a counselor in Rochester, NY working with teens and adults at a local university counseling center and in her own private practice, Clarity Mental Health Counseling. Amy adores group counseling, youth development, and strengths based approaches to therapy.
Read more about Amy at http://claritymentalhealth.org/about.php