Everyone experiences problems throughout their lives, sometimes quite regularly. These problems are subjective, meaning what is a problem for one person may not be considered a problem by someone else. Problems arise in families, relationships, between peers and coworkers, and many other situations. One of the best ways to solve these issues is by using effective problem solving and communication skills. So how can you improve your problem solving and communication skills so you can better resolve problems that arise in your life?
Intrapersonal Problems & How They Can Impact Life
Arguments With Partner
It is extremely common for relationships between partners to experience conflict and arguments at times. These arguments can occur for a variety of reasons, depending on the couple. Overall and McNulty (2017) discuss how partners with different goals, motives, and preferences can result in conflict and disagreement. Unresolved conflict and the associated stress can create risk with any relationship, even healthy ones.
Family conflicts are extremely common across society, even in healthy households. This could be conflicts between siblings, parents, parents and children, extended family, and blended family. Unresolved family conflict can lead to problems like resentment, stress, arguments, and trauma. In fact, Cummings et al. (2015) explains that family conflict can lead to problems, especially in adolescents. Specifically problems such as depression, anxiety, behavior issues, and peer problems. Most people exist in some type of family system and problem solving is crucial for family and individual well-being.
Issues With Coworkers, Employers, Fellow Students, Teammates, Etc.
Conflict can arise in numerous professional contexts including work, school, and even sports teams. Communication and conflict resolution are paramount to organizations running smoothly and effectively. Ronquillo et al. (2022) discuss conflict as normal but also as an opportunity for team building, critical thinking, and new ideas. Among styles of communication in professional organizations, the authors found that a collaborative approach involving active listening, mindfulness, and open communication is most effective at solving conflict.
Disagreements On The Internet, Social Media, Etc.
You do not have to look far on social media to find conflict. Whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, or other places where users receive information and are connected, there is conflict, arguments, misinformation, and even bullying. Zeitzoff (2017) writes that social media makes communication and receiving information easier and quicker but also has fundamentally changed the nature of conflict. Social media and the internet make conflict unique and even more challenging at times. Conflict resolution is even more difficult with the ease of polarization and lack of face-to-face communication on the internet.
Improving Problem Solving & Communication Skills
Research has shown communication and interpersonal problem solving skills are linked to social self-efficacy, the capacity to interact socially and solve problems with others (Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 2013). Garrett Counseling’s Clinical Director, Ginger Caudell, LPC says, “Problem solving is a natural and rewarding experience. Humans are wired to be intrigued and compelled to understand the things not yet understood. Making a choice to conquer, or at least lower anxiety is most effectively accomplished through problem solving skills training. Learning to focus on the solution rather than the problem is important for building and maintaining relationships since problems are inevitably just around the next corner. Identifying, securing resources, and working in tandem with others is how our world becomes more safe and prosperous. Problem solving builds self confidence. Embrace adversity and grow from the challenge.” Below are a few important problem solving and communication skills to practice:
1 – Active Listening
An article by Colorado State University Global (2021) describes active listening as making a conscious effort to hear and understand information being communicated to you. Active listening is a vital tool in communication and problem solving with others, whether it be at work, in personal relationships, etc. Instead of thinking about how you will respond while the other person is speaking, simply listen. Listen attentively, reflect back what the other is saying, and try to avoid judgment. Pay attention to the other person’s words and body language and what they are trying to communicate to you. Reflect back what they have said and seek clarification.You will absorb the information more effectively, and they will truly feel heard.
2 – Don’t Personalize The Issue
Focus on the situation and how to manage the problem, rather than focusing on the problem as the other person’s character flaw. Relationships can often breed resentment and contempt when labeling problems entirely as the other person having a personal flaw. Criticism and defensiveness and lack of willingness to seek solutions together can lead to worse outcomes in relationships. The Gottman Institute discusses patterns like these as major predictors of negative outcomes in relationships, specifically calling them “The Four Horsemen” (Gottman, 1999). Continue reading for more on Gottman’s research later in this article.
3 – Use “I” Statements
Instead of saying things like, “You always do this!”, try statements like “I feel hurt when…” The initial communication style in a discussion can set the tone for the remainder of the conversation. When one person communicates aggressively, the other person often has the tendency to match that tone and language, which is why it is so easy for two people in conflict to escalate together. An article by Rogers et al. (2018) discusses the effects of particular types of communication and how they affect the ability to reduce hostility in a discussion and found that using “I” language combined with communicating perspective was effective in reducing the likelihood of the other person becoming defensive. A good example is “I understand that you are very tired after school, but I would feel appreciative if you helped with the chores,” rather than “You should help with the chores.”
4 – Practice Kindness
Kindness is an aspect of effective communication in relationships that is easy to guess, but it is not always easy to implement. Gottman (2015) writes in his book that one of the most important things in making marriage work is “turning toward each other” and nurturing fondness and admiration. Even in contexts other than a romantic relationship, displaying kindness can be a very effective tool for problem solving together and facilitating positive interactions. Esch and Stefano (2011) write in their article that love and compassion can be effective in reducing stress and fostering better health. Needless to say, kindness is important for everyone in all facets of life.
5 – Be Present
Be present in the moment with the other person so you can manage the problem together, free from outside distractions. Being mindful involves focusing on the “here and now” with the other person and attempting to ignore other distracting things as well as not worrying about the past, but simply being present mentally and emotionally. O’Leary et al. (2014) discusses the concept of “perceived proximity”, which means the feeling of being close to someone. They assert, based on their research, that being physically close to someone is important, but the feeling of being close/with someone is even more important than actually being physically there. It is evident that feeling close to someone can be beneficial in relationships and solving problems, and being actively present with someone mentally and emotionally can be a great way to achieve this.
6 – Show Acceptance & Validation
Validate the other person’s feelings. You might disagree, but everyone has a right to feel their emotions. Few would argue against the fact that it is a terrible feeling to experience an emotion such as sadness, disappointment, or frustration, and communicate this feeling to another person only for it to be dismissed or even criticized. Harvey and Ahmann (2016) discuss the concept of validation as an important skill in solving problems and making other people feel heard and accepted. This involves taking the other person seriously and truly listening to them and allowing the other person to experience their emotion, validating and accepting their feelings even if you disagree. This skill goes a long way in a variety of contexts, whether it be in family conflict, professional communication, or discussions between partners.
Gottman Techniques for Relationships with Significant Others
The Gottman Institute (founded by John and Julie Gottman) have developed the Gottman Method by researching relationships for over 40 years. Here are some tips from Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, originally written in 1999 and revised in 2015:
Build Relationship Love Maps
Try to understand your partner’s history and beliefs. Show affection and admiration for them. Gottman’s research shows that couples should be intimately familiar with each other’s worlds. Couples should strive to be familiar with each other’s goals, dreams, worries, and important moments in their shared history. With more intimate knowledge of each other, it is much easier to be prepared to weather storms together. Gottman (2000) states that over half of divorces occur in the first 7 years of marriage, and 67 percent of couples experience a drop in marital satisfaction in that period. A strong predictor of maintaining satisfaction is keeping “cognitive room” for your partner, also known as the love map.
Turn Toward Them Instead Of Away
Communicate your needs to your partner, and pay attention to them and their needs. Navarra and Gottman (2017) explain that “bids” are an important part of relationships; bids are efforts one makes to connect with their partner, whether verbally or nonverbally. How couples respond to each other’s bids has been shown to be a reliable predictor of relationship satisfaction and stability (Navarra and Gottman, 2017). Turning toward your partner involves making an effort to pay attention and respond to their bids for connection, no matter how small. Whether it be a simple wink, hand holding, or serious conversation, make an effort to turn toward instead of away.
Operate from a positive perspective instead of assuming the worst. Increase the number of positive interactions you share, and allow your partner to influence you. Poulsen (2008) from Purdue University expands on Gottman’s research and explains the concept of “The Magic Ratio” of relationships and how important it is to have a healthy balance with positive interactions outweighing the amount of negatives. Gottman (2000) explains that the absence of positive affect/interactions was a stronger predictor of divorce than the presence of negative affect/interactions.
Instead of trying to resolve a problem, manage the conflict in a positive way. Gottman’s clinical manual (2000) also describes the nature of conflict and places more importance on how your affect and interactions are when trying to solve a problem, rather than actually solving the problem. Some “perpetual problems”, such as fundamental personality differences, do not have a clear solution. Place more emphasis on being gentle, accepting influence from your partner, creating positive dialogue, deescalate, compromise, and repair.
Make Life Dreams Come True
Respect each other’s dreams, beliefs, goals. Gottman (2000) stresses the importance of exploring each other’s symbolic values and attempting to accomplish each other’s dreams and aspirations together. No matter what each person’s background is, a couple creates their own unique culture together and enmeshes them. Striving to make dreams come true together is a very effective way of avoiding marital “gridlock”.
Figure out together what is causing a block in your life, and take steps to overcome it. Gottman (2000) describes one of the primary reasons for gridlock is unfulfilled dreams. Satisfied couples usually are more demanding of marriage instead of lowering their expectations. This does not mean demanding in the sense of being aggressive and overly demanding, but it means both people keeping their dreams alive together and persistently using open communication without criticism, as well as working on “unresolvable” conflicts. Again, it is less important to actually solve these perpetual problems (personality differences that may never be totally fixed), but it is crucial to “declaw” the issue by removing the pain associated with it. Continue to show respect to each other without blame and criticism, use open communication and trust, allow the influence from your partner, and make dreams come true.
Create Shared Meaning
Meshing remains a key word for this principle. Couples must try to mesh their dreams, narratives, myths, metaphors, and symbolic meaning. These symbolic ideas are where we find our ideas of marriage and what it should be. Gottman (2000) uses examples like “What does a ‘home’ mean?” and “What is the meaning of family dinner times?” These contain the pair’s thoughts, stories, and myths about marriage. This is the step in which those in the relationship create their new unique culture with new shared meaning. Cherish the small moments, the rituals, and the gestures just as much as you share the grand aspirations and dreams. This builds affection and intimacy.
Counseling can be beneficial in overcoming obstacles in relationships and improving problem solving and communication skills together. We offer individual, couples, and family counseling at our locations throughout Alabama and online. Contact us today to learn more!
This article was written by Lee Thompson, MS, ALC, NCC (under the supervision of Leah Simmons (#3334) – a mental health professional at Garrett Counseling in Boaz, AL.
To read more about relationships, you might enjoy these articles:
Cherry, K. (2022, February 23). How to improve your communication in relationships. Verywell Mind. Retrieved December 16, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/communication-in-relationships-why-it-matters-and-how-to-improve-5218269
Cummings, E. M., Koss, K. J., & Davies, P. T. (2015). Prospective relations between family conflict and adolescent maladjustment: security in the family system as a mediating process. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 43(3), 503–515. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-014-9926-1
Erozkan, A. (2013). The Effect of Communication Skills and Interpersonal Problem Solving Skills on Social Self-Efficacy. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 13, 739–745.
Esch, T., & Stefano, G. B. (2011). The neurobiological link between compassion and love. Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research, 17(3), RA65–RA75. https://doi.org/10.12659/msm.881441
Gottman, J. M. (2000). Clinical manual for marital therapy: A research-based approach. Gottman Institute.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony.
Harvey, P., & Ahmann, E. (2016). Validation: a family-centered communication skill. Nephrology Nursing Journal, 43(1), 61+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A445116782/AONE?u=anon~e3b3f9e9&sid=googleScholar&xid=4ebc940f
Lisitsa, E. (2022, May 9). The sound relationship house: Build love maps. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-sound-relationship-house-build-love-maps/
Navarra, R.J., Gottman, J.M. (2018). Bids and Turning Toward in Gottman Method Couple Therapy. In: Lebow, J., Chambers, A., Breunlin, D. (eds) Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_183-1
O’Leary, M. B., Wilson, J. M., & Metiu, A. (2014). Beyond Being There: The Symbolic Role of Communication and Identification in Perceptions of Proximity to Geographically Dispersed Colleagues. MIS Quarterly, 38(4), 1219–1244. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26627969
Overall, N. C., & McNulty, J. K. (2017). What Type of Communication during Conflict is Beneficial for Intimate Relationships?. Current opinion in psychology, 13, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.03.002
Poulsen, S. (2008). A fine balance: The magic ratio to a healthy relationship. Purdue Extension. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/CFS/CFS-744-W.pdf
Rogers, S. L., Howieson, J., & Neame, C. (2018). I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: the benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflict. PeerJ, 6, e4831. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4831
Ronquillo, Y., Ellis, V. L., & Toney-Butler, T. J. (2022). Conflict Management. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
What is active listening? 4 tips for improving communication skills. Colorado State University Global. (2021, May 10). Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://csuglobal.edu/blog/what-active-listening-4-tips-improving-communication-skills
Zeitzoff, T. (2017). How Social Media Is Changing Conflict. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(9), 1970–1991. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26363973