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3 Levels of Communication: Which Is Yours?

Know your destination and keep the conversation out of the ditch.

Key points

  • Communication is about learning skills. Most couples tend to move through three skill levels.
  • Skill levels include moving from facts to feelings, realizing when a conversation is going nowhere, and circling back to solve problems.
  • When communicating, it helps to have a clear destination, know where you want to go, and focus on yourself.
Source: jwvein/pixabay

When seeing couples in therapy, one of the primary things I track is how well partners can communicate and solve problems: Do they argue, can they tell when an argument is getting out of hand, and can they circle back when calm and solve the problem, reaching win-win compromises? While these skills exist on a continuum, I tend to group them into three levels. Here’s how they break down from poor to great:

Level 1

I use the analogy that having a conversation is like driving a car, and there are two parts to driving: First, you want to know where you’re going—what’s the point of the conversation—and then you want to keep the car on the road. Couples at this first stage often are unsure where they are going; more importantly, the conversational car usually goes off the road and into a ditch within nanoseconds.

At the bottom of this level are couples who can be violent, but even when that’s not the case, arguments quickly escalate. Not only is there a lot of emotion, but there is a steady back and forth over facts and whose reality is right—it was Tuesday, no, it was Wednesday! They get tunnel vision, stacking up evidence to make their point, adding fuel to the fire by pulling out the stops about past wounds—and seem unable to see that they’re not getting anywhere. The argument slips into a blame game, a fight-to-the-death power struggle, and the car is in the ditch. Usually, the argument ends because one person stomps off.

The couple may not talk for a few days, pretend nothing happened, or mumble a quick “I’m sorry” the next morning. But they don’t go back and talk about the problem because they don’t want another fight. Here’s where problems get swept under the rug, go unsolved, and inevitably flare up again.

Level 2

These couples do a better job of realizing that they’re going off-topic–“Let’s not get into that right now”–and that the argument is escalating and the car’s going off the road. If it’s a particularly sensitive topic, or they’re both already stressed, the car does wind up in a ditch; usually, they try to lower the temperature by stopping the conversation. There’s less blame and less of a power struggle.

They also do a better job circling back and trying to solve the problem. That said, they may get stuck with confusing means and ends: arguing over whose way of solving the problem, how to get the kids to bed on time, and losing sight of the bigger goal, getting them to bed earlier. If it’s a hot topic for them—sex, money, parenting—they may find themselves continually reaching a stalemate that they can’t seem to break. But compared to Level 1 couples, they can often reach solutions and compromises on many issues.

Level 3

These folks are the race-car drivers. They know the destination and can avoid the ditches by not escalating. More importantly, they've learned to make those subtle turns of the steering wheel to keep the conversational car going forward by quickly noticing when the conversation is going off course: “Hold on. I’m not trying to be critical; why are you getting upset?” said calmly.

Do they have arguments? Sure, when there’s the perfect storm of stress, a hot topic, or alcohol. But overall, they can each regulate their emotions and quickly tell when feelings are the problem in the room, not the topic.

And when the emotional dust settles, they sincerely apologize, circle back and move ahead in solving the problem, coming up with win-win compromises. And they can have a conversation about conversations: What did they learn from what happened? What pushed their buttons? How can they do it better next time?

Moving up

Like driving a car, this is all about skills, not personality. When I’m working with couples, I’m fortunate to be able to see their progress as they learn to recognize when a conversation is escalating, to stop stacking up evidence and lower the temperature by talking about emotions and not facts, or realize that they need to take a few minutes to calm down. And then, they can circle back to solve the problem, rather than sweeping it under the rug.

But like learning to drive a car, it takes practice. Couple therapy can be helpful because, like that driving instructor, you have someone to teach you the skills and be another set of eyes in the passenger seat to help you see what you have trouble seeing. But even if you’re not in therapy or don’t want to do it, you can improve your skills by being more intentional.

I say to clients that they know how to have productive conversations because they do it at their jobs all the time. They don’t flare up in a staff meeting when someone says something that bothers them. But there's history at home with their partner: They know how to push each other’s buttons, but they have the skills nonetheless. So, if you’re having a problem or upset about something in the family or the relationship, schedule a time to discuss it. Pretend it is like a meeting at work. Have a clear destination; know where you want to go and focus on yourself. Focus on keeping the car on the road, moving forward, and not getting into the weeds of the past. If it gets emotional, stop before spinning your wheels in the mud.

And then get back on the road.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Taibbi, R. (2017). Doing couple therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.

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