- Take your time to breathe and ground yourself
- See each person with curiosity (Beginner’s mind)
- Ask each person:
What brought you here today?
If this therapy works what would that look like for you?
- Thank them and then ask the same questions to their partner
- Invite them to face each other and talk. Tell them you will interrupt as you have something to offer.
Let them know that they can say “no” to any suggestions you make and that you will respect that. Get their agreement.
Sit back and listen and observe”
- the couple’s dynamics/patterns
- how they communicate
- how they attempt to keep themselves safe
- how they attempt to get their needs met
Appreciate their attempts at keeping themselves safe and safeguarding their well-being — separate from their behavior. This is the intention under their, perhaps, problematic behavior.
When clients feel you get their intention they are more open to accepting your interventions
When a pattern emerges or you make an observation:
Make each person feel seen, heard and respected by staying in touch with each, i.e., balance your interventions. State the behavior that you observe and check out the feeling/meaning that it has for the person, and then their partner.
For example: Joe it looked like when Mary said she misses you that you pulled back in your chair and you felt criticized or blamed or pulled at. Is that accurate?
Mary, did you notice that?
And Mary, when Joe pulled back it looked like you got frustrated, angry and your shoulders drooped, like you gave up getting your need met. Is that accurate?
Joe, did you notice that?
To both: is that a familiar pattern?
If yes: that is difficult/painful for both of you. Neither of you gets what you want.
Ask: Would you like to try something different?
Again, if anything I suggest isn’t okay with you let me know and I will respect it.
(Some couples want to know what you will be suggesting before agreeing to do it.
I say: I’m going to help you breathe and ground so your nervous system will be more regulated and then I am going to help each of you talk to each other in a way that is different from your familiar patterns. And, of course, at any point you can let me know if something I suggest isn’t okay with you).
LISTENING TO THEMSELVES
You have introduced this often after you have identified a familiar pattern and asked the couple if they would like to try something different and they have agreed to tell you if something you suggest doesn’t work for them or if they have any objections/concerns.
Work with both at the same time.
Grounding and Breathing
- Feel the ground with your feet
- Does it feel solid or like it could give way?
If the ground feels unstable have them sit forward, rub their feet into the ground, stomp, if necessary. This usually makes the connection stronger. If the ground still feels unstable ask them if the seat of the chair feels like it is holding them.
If they still are ungrounded you need to acknowledge that: their anxiety or lack of safety and work with that.
- If the ground feels solid ask them to breathe into their lower belly. Observe the movement in their chest and belly. You will see how deep their breathing is. If it goes only to the throat or chest encourage them to let the breath go another “1/16th of an inch,” for example.
Listening to themselves:
- Suggest that they let their breath and attention go into their body.
(If you notice eye movement under their lids they are thinking and you can suggest they ask their “thinkers” to step to the side and watch so they can explore in a different way.
- Suggest: notice any emotions or sensations (you can give examples if necessary:
Tight or loose, warm or cold, movement or stillness), thoughts or impulses, or any parts that are present
- Ask them: Ask the part/sensation/emotion you are aware of what it wants you to know,
Let it know you hear it
How does it react to that?
As you observe each person you will get a sense of their engagement in the process and can coach them, if necessary
- Tell them: In a moment I am going to ask you to come back here. Take some time to see what you or your parts need in order to transition back and then open your eyes
- When their eyes open suggest they see each other.
Most often couples smile at each other and connect.
Then move to teaching them how to communicate their experience
- Bring couple back to the room and ask them to see each other
- Invite them to share their internal experience by talking for their parts, i.e., reporting what they were aware of: their sensations, emotions, thoughts, impulses.
- Tell the listener that their job is to listen and repeat back to their partner what they heard (not their response) so their partner feels heard, and then ask: did I get it?
If not, the speaker adds or clarifies
- Then switch, so the listener now describes their internal experience when they were listening to themselves.
The idea is to slow down the process of communication so you can help each person
- Stay regulated
- Hear each other
- Be curious and explore
Therapist keeps their interventions balanced, i.e., attending to both people, with
- Did you know that about your partner/wife/husband?
- What did you experience as you heard your partner?
Marla Silverman, Ph.D.