For her part, Jane was able to sustain a longer-term vision of the potential of their relationship even in the face of conflict and inequality: “I didn’t want to break up!” The issue of creating a broader understanding of the world around her (a central ingredient in her initial attraction to Steve) remained-powerful for Jane. She saw herself as “still very naive.” We can assist her in her effort to become less naïve about her relationship with Steve by helping her understanding why communications are so difficult and why many relationships break down precisely because of the communication challenges. We will specifically focus on four communication issues (or axioms) that were articulated many years ago by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues: (1) the impossibility of not communicating, (2) the importance of both the content and relationship levels of communication, (3) the punctuation of the sequences of events in a relationship, (4) the important role played by different types of communication and (5) the important differences between symmetrical and complementary interactions

We will briefly examine each of these axioms as they relate to the conflicts experienced by the couples we interviewed.

Trying to Not Communicate

This first axiom suggests that no matter how one tries, he or she cannot avoid communicating. All activity or inactivity on behalf of the individual influences another in his or her presence.
Heather and Marianne fully recognize the communicative power of silence and address it before it gets out of hand. Marianne puts it this way: “I sometimes harbor things. Heather’s better about getting stuff out in the open. But we always end up talking about it.” Heather adds her observations:

Yeah, we always do. If Marianne gets quiet, after a while I’ll ask: “Are you alright?” And she’ll say, “No, I’m not.” And then we talk about it. We play this stupid game of Marianne being silent for a while. I know right away that something’s going on but that seems to work for us. I give her a bit of time to be silent. It works for me to talk about it right away and I think that it would be better for Marianne if she’d talk about it right away too, but she thinks about it for a while in silence which is probably better.
Marianne chimes in: “and she flies off the handle more, which is probably better!” These two women have forged an effective, complimentary relationship and an effective conflict management strategy. They appreciate the destructive role played by unacknowledged and unaddressed silence.


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About the Author

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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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