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Coaching Couples to be Participant-Observers in Marriage by Jeff and Jill Williams

Feb 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Family Coaching Center

If you want to help couples learn to help themselves by coaching their own marriage relationship it is essential that they learn to do two things well:

  1. To participate in conversations with heart and skill.
  2. To observe and adjust their own communication process.

Do you remember the cartoon in which the dog chased the cat around a chair?  Round and round they went in furious and infuriating circles…until the cat removed itself from the fray by hopping up onto the back of the chair.  From that vantage point the cat was able to get a different perspective on the fracas in which it had been involved.

While the cat watched from above, the dog continued its circular scramble, unaware that the cat had changed its posture in their relationship by temporarily removing itself from the fray.  Then, after a brief time-out, the cool-headed kitty hopped down to once again participate in the relational melee, but differently due to the insights gained through observation.

We admire the cat because it was able to balance two roles: participant and observer.  It fully engaged in participation, yet wisely withdrew to rest, get perspective and plan to interact differently.

Our view of the dog is different.  We scorn it as an undisciplined and emotionally overwrought participant.  How might the mongrel have engaged the circumstance in a better way if it too would have withdrawn to observe for a bit?

Partners as Participants and Observers

When coaching marriages, it is important to teach partners to communicate with good skill and good-will (heart), and then to observe the process, including their thoughts, feelings and desires regarding the process.  This equips couples to continue coaching their own marriage into the future.

Most couples want to show us the problems they have in their communication process so that we know how to be helpful.  After modeling skills and facilitating them to practice through exercises, we prompt them to observe, analyze and improve their process for themselves.  Here’s an illustration of how this works:

Todd and Mary*

Todd and Mary are talking in front of us about what they want to be different in their marriage.  We’ll pick up their conversation just after Mary shared many of her desires for their marriage and family.

Todd: “I really want all the things you want, Mary; to be more of a family, doing things together, and mostly to be a man you trust and want to talk to.”

Coach Jill: “Mary, please reflect what you hear Todd saying.”

Mary: “Okay (tone of voice is a bit begrudging and slightly sarcastic). Todd, you want to be the kind of man that I and the kids want to spend time with and feel comfortable talking to.”

Todd: “Yes.  I really do.  And I know I haven’t done very well at that, and that I’ve made promises to change before.”

Mary: “So you realize that it’s hard for me to believe that you are really going to take action and do differently?”

Todd: “Yes.”

Coach Jeff: “Okay, Mary, let’s pause for a minute, take a step back and talk about what you were thinking and feeling just now.”  “Jill, I’m hearing and seeing Mary getting frustrated and wonder if a time-out would be good in this conversation to slow things down to give Mary an opportunity to understand her feelings, and to see how leaking those feelings in her tone of voice is going to affect their conversation?”

Jill to Jeff: “Yes, I was thinking the same. Mary, we want to commend you for reflecting what Todd shared without inserting your own thoughts or feelings.  It looked like you were unhappy and that it was hard to refrain from responding.”

Mary: “Yes, exactly.  I’m frustrated (crying).  This is where I have trouble, because I’ve heard this so many times without follow through.  If you weren’t here, I would have rolled my eyes, sighed and turned away, because they’re just words.”

Coach Jill: “That’s a great insight into yourself and about the process of how the two of you usually communicate.  Let’s get to that in a moment, but first, we want to model validation of how you are feeling.”

Coach Jeff: “Mary, we hear that you are sad and frustrated because you’ve longed for Todd to be the kind of man he is talking about, and he’s promised to try, but it hasn’t happened.”

Mary: “Yes.  I just don’t know what is going to make it different this time.”

Coach Jill: “Let’s focus on your part for a moment, Mary.  There might be something you can do differently that could help.  Remember, your marriage is our client.  We aren’t picking on you, but we do need to focus on your part as much as Todd’s part.  Ok? (Mary nods yes).   What do you do in conversation when you feel frustrated with Todd and you think that things aren’t going to change?”

Mary: “I turn away and refuse to talk anymore or worse, I say I don’t believe him…that it isn’t going to get any better… I guess I don’t help to make things any better.”

Coach Jeff: “What could you do differently if you wanted to do your part to improve your communication?” (Notice that we moved right to problem-solving vs. focusing on her shaming herself.  This is a hallmark of coaching; brainstorming options to do differently.)

Mary: “I could listen to Todd in good faith, as if he really means what he says.  I could pray for a better attitude and to not leak my feelings with my eyes or tone of voice, in fact to have a hopeful heart.   You’ve told us that we both have to be willing to hear each other for this to work, so I could do what Todd was doing in our session earlier today by listening to and reflecting what I was saying.  Maybe that will help.”

Coach Jill: “Todd, would you reflect?”

Todd: “Mary, I hear that you are willing to try, and want to do it with hope and not with any anger or hopeless feelings in your tone of voice.  That you are going to try to do this process with good-will.”

Mary: “Yes, I’m going to try.  And I want you to understand that the more evidence I see in our everyday life, the easier it is going to be for me to be hopeful and open with you.”

Todd: “I hear that as you see evidence that I’m going to make lasting changes that you will really believe that things can be different, and that will encourage you to do you part in our conversations.”

Mary: “Yes.”

Todd: “That’s fair.  I’m glad, because I really do want it to be different this time.  I am trying and will keep trying no matter how you respond.  Jeff, I want you to hold me accountable to that. You have my permission to ask me how I’m doing with holding my tongue even when, especially when I feel misunderstood or if Mary leaks some angry feelings in her tone.”

Coach Jeff: “Okay, Todd.  I will be happy to support you like that.  Now, what just happened?”

Mary: “You helped us to take a step back to realize that things were about to unravel in our conversation.  You acted quickly to stop the process so that we could step back and think about what was happening when you noticed that I was about to lose it.”

Coach Jeff: “Okay, good.  Now, how might you do this for yourselves when we’re not around?”

Mary: “Well, we could stop the conversation if one of us is getting upset.  Rather than saying things we regret or leaking feelings in my tone of voice, I could take some time to think about what I’m feeling, and how it would be best for our relationship for me to say it with good-will rather than just reacting.”

Coach Jill: “That sounds good.  Todd, what do you think about that and what do you think you could do?”

Todd: “I think she is right.  It will help me for Mary to monitor her tone, and I can do the same.  Also, instead of being like a bull-dog in pursuit of a solution, I can agree to accept time-outs with the understanding that we really are moving forward in our relationship more quickly by slowing things down and staying faithful to use a good process.”

Coaches Jeff and Jill:  “Yeah!  This sounds great!”

Let’s Review the Process

After observing a couple to sample their communication process, we called a time-out to share our observations, and then asked them to make some observations.  The point was to enlist their help as observers from the beginning so that they get used to thinking about what they are doing in their communication as an essential skill to continuous quality improvement in their relationship.  Couples love being invited to collaborate with us like this.  They feel empowered to actively participate in the process rather than talked down to as if they know nothing about how to relate or communicate.  And, it provides opportunity for them to choose strategies that they think will work.

The result of being intentional to teach couples to observe their communication is that they become empowered to analyze and adjust their process.  This effectively works Marriage Coaching couples out of a job, one couple at a time.  We think that’s a great result, and so do the couples we coach!  We know that they’re on their way when they say, “We know what to do even when you’re not around!” Mission accomplished; another couple equipped to continually improve their relationship by improving the process they use to have conversations.

*Come back next month for more on teaching couples to observe themselves in special circumstances.  “How to Coach Couples When Things Get Heated.”

Jeff and Jill Williams write and speak about Marriage Coaching.  Together they privately coach couples and train groups of couples that want to coach marriages through a series of tele-classes that are accessible for any couple (globally) with a phone and internet connection. They have trained couples in sieven countries and 22 states.  Write to, or call 301-515-1218 for more information.

Copyright 2010 Jeffrey J. Williams | Grace & Truth Relationship Education | Germantown | MD | 20876 301.515.1218,

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