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The Intentional Use of Silence and Self in Conflict Communication

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

When I think of couples in conflict, I certainly think about how I can help the couple in therapy structure their conversation in productive ways. The content of what is said and how it is said is definitely important. The challenge at times for therapists is that no matter what structure or strategies we offer to the couple in session, the couple might go home and continue the problematic pattern in their conflict communication. Sometimes, communication strategies are just not enough.

Equally important, maybe even more important, is what is not said between the couple. Now I am not talking about different levels of communication, such as non-verbal or para-vertebral communication. I am more talking about the intrapersonal awareness of what’s going on within you during silence and using that information to relate differently to your partner. It is the silent moments between the two of you that can make the difference, particularly if you are intentional in creating the silent moments.

I would like to challenge you to begin (today) to intentionally use silence with your partner. There are several benefits from doing so.

The structural usefulness of silence is that it creates a different tempo in the conversation. This is critically needed when couples are in conflict. The slower tempo during conflict reduces the likelihood that the conversation will escalate.

But moments of silence are more than just structural. Silence creates an opportunity for reflective process for you that likely does not happen in conflict conversations when the tempo is quick.

Think of the process this way; your partner makes a statement to you, you reflect on the statement while remaining silent, you integrate the reflective material into the conversation when appropriate. FYI, your therapist does this by the way, and you may have noticed that the tempo of the therapist can sometimes seem slower than what would be a natural conversation. This is referred to as the use of self in therapy. It makes for a highly effective clinician.

The reflective material during the silence is key to being successful with difficult conversations. Here are some simple questions streams to ask yourself during reflective silence:

1. What am I feeling at this moment?

2. What is my perception of myself, my partner, or my partner’s perception of me?

3. What is my partner yearning for in this relationship that he/she is expressing in this conversation? What yearning do I notice for myself in this relationship?

4. What expectations do I have for myself in this conversation? What expectations do I have for my partner? Are any of these expectations irrational?

5. What do I understand is my partner's need in this conversation? What am I needing? Am I able to meet these needs? Is my partner able to meet these needs?

Following the silence, respond to your partner based on your reflection. Your disclosure will likely be more personal and thoughtful.

If you were to watch a couple use reflective silence on video, the silence would seem unusually long but in truth, it would probably be no more than 10 seconds. Of course, it could be useful to be longer than that, depending on the reflective process of each partner.

Again, when each partner engages in silence and reflective process in conflict, they slow the tempo and they are less likely to respond with well-rehearsed, unconscious automatic responses. Which, by the way, automatic responses usually are not all that helpful in conflict.

I would encourage you to discuss this article with your partner and began using silence with important conversations. As a therapist, I would also enjoy helping you do this in session.

Contact Dr. Losey at 513-688-0092 or

Twitter: @butchlosey

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