Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Couples Coaching

A 21st Century NLP Approach To Working With Couples

Dr Richard Bolstad

A. The Revolution In Couples Therapy

The Crisis Of Couples Counselling

It's no secret that one to one intimate relationships (such as marriage) are more challenging to maintain in the world today. In the United States, for example, between 50% and 67% of first marriages end in divorce, and the percentage is higher for each subsequent marriage and higher for non-marital intimate partnerships. One sad result of this is increased illness. Those of us who are able to stay in an intimate couple (whether we are male or female) will live approximately 4 years longer, making the couples lifestyle one of the most significant life extension interventions known (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 4). The cost of separation in economic terms is the source of many jokes, but it is also a realistic fact that people who separate, after living together for any length of time, considerably affect their financial future.

Is there help for those whose relationships do not seem to be built to last? Of those couples who attempt to heal the rift by going to a couples counsellor, 43.6% will separate within five years of their "therapy" and less than 18% will get any prolonged measurable benefit from their counselling. Most of these couples say that the therapy "helped", but from the research the result of that help is usually a continuation of destructive patterns of interaction, followed in half of all cases by divorce. (Gottman, 1999, p 3-6).

How NLP Emerged From And Transcends Traditional Couples Counselling

NLP, the field I teach in, emerged out of the work of one extraordinary couples counsellor. Often called the grandmother of Family Therapy, Virginia Satir assisted thousands of married couples and families to resolve old conflicts and create a more enjoyable life together. One day Satir was demonstrating couples counselling in front of a group of student psychotherapists. She stopped talking to the couple she was working with, and asked if any of her students could carry on, using her methods. On by one, students tried to help the couple, but none of them seemed to know how Virginia chose what to say. Virginia seemed to have some magic way of knowing just which question or comment would reveal and alter the complex dynamic of the couple's relationship.

At the back of the room, a young man was tape recording the training session. He was Richard Bandler, a computer programmer and a graduate student of linguistics at the University of California, and he had no training in psychology or couples dynamics. Finally, after Satir's students had failed, Bandler came to the front of the room and offered to talk to the couple. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly how Virginia was constructing her questions and suggestions to the couple. In 1976 Richard Bandler and his Professor of Linguistics John Grinder wrote the first of several books explaining their discoveries about communication, human change, and teaching. Their first book, called "The Structure of Magic" (Bandler and Grinder, 1975) explained that by understanding how to utilise the inner "languages"of the brain (a methodology they later called neuro-linguistic programming or NLP) anyone could learn to achieve the excellent results of the most expert communicators, teachers and therapists.

Virginia Satir said in her foreword to this book (Bandler and Grinder, 1975): "It would be hard for me to write this Foreword without my own feeling of excitement, amazement and thrill coming through. I have been a teacher of family therapy for a long time .... I have a theory about how I make change occur. The knowledge of the process is now considerably advanced by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, who can talk in a way that can be concretised and measured about the ingredients of the what that goes into making the how possible." (Satir, in Bandler and Grinder, 1975, p. Viii).

Amazingly, forty years on, the one type of therapy that the students of Bandler and Grinder's method are usually least trained in is couples counselling! This article launches itself from the couples counselling roots of NLP, explores the research based leading edge of twenty-first century couples coaching, and presents an NLP-based model of couples coaching. Using it fully presupposes some basic knowledge of NLP, for which I recommend my book Transforming Communication 2004).

When I talk to new coaches and NLP Master Practitioners, I frequently find that they have bought the idea that those original students of Satir had; the idea that there is some complex, pathological and hidden dynamic going on between the two people in a couple - some dynamic that the coach or counsellor needs years of experience with to successfully trick the couple out of.

Dan Wile (1992, p 29) shows how this theory has shaped traditional couples counseling. Discussing the foremost theorists in the field, he says "Thus Ackerman (1966) deliberately charms, ridicules, and bullies family members; Haley (1963b) and Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) strategically manipulate them with paradoxical instructions; Jackson and Weakland (1961) tactically place them in therapeutic double binds; Haley (1977) systematically browbeats certain partners who fail to do the tasks he assigns them; Minuchin and his colleagues (1967) "frontally silence" overbearing wives to "rock the system" and show their passive husbands how to stand up to them; Speck (1965) openly engages in "power struggles" with families . . . It is perhaps surprising, considering the dramatic nature of these methods, that they have been incorporated into the couples and family therapy traditions with so little discussion and debate."

This adversarial and analytical approach turns out to be as unnecessary in the case of couples counseling as it is in the case of individual therapy or coaching. Richard Bandler was able to replicate what Satir did, not because he understood some hidden dynamics that she was using, but because he was willing to treat the work as a simple task of linguistic analysis. In the last decade, couples therapists themselves have adopted Bandler's willingness to study what actually happens linguistically when a couple are in conflict, and what actually happens when a couple's relationship is successful.

The Gottman Revolution In Couples Counselling

Seattle's Washington University researchers and marital therapists John and Julie Gottman have been in the forefront of this revolution in couples work. Their in depth research on more than a thousand couples over the last thirty years has debunked many cherished theories about what makes intimate relationships work. It has shown, for example, that in general the personality characteristics and even the objective degree of similarity between the couples personality types is irrelevant to marital happiness. Even the number of arguments between the couple does not determine a couple's sense of satisfaction and likelihood of separation. However, in happy couples, each person perceives the other as being basically a functional person (with certain quirks) and basically similar to them. In happy couples, each perceives arguments as useful and manageable expressions of differences. In unhappy relationships, each partner perceives the other as basically flawed and unlike them, and conflicts are experienced as emotionally traumatic (Gottman, 1999, p 19-21).

When couples are videotaped 24 hours a day, the difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is very small - for example it includes happy couples saying approximately 100 more words of positive comment per day (a mere 30 seconds more of positive talking) compared to unhappy couples. But those 30 seconds are crucial (Gottman, 1999, p 59). Furthermore there are subtle differences in the linguistic patterns that successful couples use before, during and after an argument. These differences in linguistic patterns pervade the whole relationship though, not just the arguments. Gottman's researchers have shown that they can accurately predict whether a couple will divorce just by listening to a five minute conversation between the couple, by identifying the specific language patterns used and seeing the specific non-verbal responses they make to each other (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 3). But these detailed differences are not merely present in arguments. As Gottman says, his research has shown that "successful conflict resolution isn't what makes marriages succeed." (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 11). The formation of an intimate relationship, Gottman's research shows, is the formation of a whole new culture. It is the quality of the friendship between the couple, as evidenced in their exact verbal and non-verbal communication, that counts, for both men and women.

What solution focused therapy did for individual coaching is similar to what Gottman's research has contributed to couples coaching. He says "In my therapy the entire problem-solving process is recast as one of identifying and harmonizing people’s basic life dreams. Much of the process of conflict resolution is an exploration in using the marital friendship to help make one another’s life dreams come true." (Gottman, 1999, p 184). NLP Practitioners and Solution Focused coaches will recognize this approach as the analogue of their own work with individuals. Gottman's research has added considerably to our knowledge of the specific patterns that work in relationships, and the specific coaching interventions that will enhance those patterns. Even where I may disagree with his conclusions (see next section), it is Gottman who has, for the first time, provided the research data to form realistic conclusions rather than psychobabble hypotheses. Next, Gottman has demonstrated that by shifting from analysis and manipulation to coaching the couple to respond in the way that more successful couples do, he can double the success of couples counseling .

Some Confusion In Gottman's Conclusions

Before we go any further, it is fair to say that there is one core conclusion drawn by John Gottman which I (like many other solution focused coaches or therapists) would not agree with. It appears in the first paragraph below. In one and the same book, Gottman says:

A) "Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely work" One of the most startling findings of our research is that most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they're upset." (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 11)
B) "The bottom-line rule is that, before you ask your partner to change the way he or she drives, eats or makes love, you must make your partner feel that you are understanding. If either (or both) of you feels judged, misunderstood, or rejected by the other, you will not be able to manage the problems in your marriage. This holds for big problems and small ones. There's a big difference between "You are such a lousy driver. Would you please slow down before you kill us?" and "I know how much you enjoy driving fast. But it makes me really nervous when you go over the speed limit. Could you please slow down?" Maybe that second approach takes a bit longer. But that extra time is worth it since it is the only approach that works. (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 149)

The contradiction between these two statements is so clear to me that it needs little comment. Suffice it to say that I agree entirely with Gottman's comments in the second quote, from page 149 of his book, and I agree with Robert Scuka (2005, p 56) who critiques the comment above that in much more detail and summarizes "In conclusion, despite the creativity and usefulness of much of the empirical research conducted by Gottman, his interpretation of the results of that research and its meaning with regard to empathy is seriously flawed. More to the point, Gottman's inference and claim, that marital therapy should "abandon" teaching distressed couples how to empathize for the purpose of improving their relationship, is in no way legitimated by the research itself. It is also contradicted by some of Gottman's own assumptions, as well as the results of his own research." Reflective listening is indeed challenging to apply, especially in a conflict-ridden relationship, AND it is an essential skill for finding a way out of conflict; a skill which has not been taught to us and which couples benefit enormously by learning.

Repeatedly, as I read Gottman's research, I regret that he did not study a linguistics based model such as NLP before analyzing the language structures of the couples he studied. I find his references to language patterns are often confusing and unclear. For example, he quotes Dan Wile's critique of I messages (a skill which Gottman goes on to advocate) as if that critique is a critique of reflective listening (a skill which Gottman suggests is only useful outside of conflict situations - Gottman, 1999, p 9). He confuses "I messages" and "you messages", for example suggesting that "I think you are selfish" is an I message (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 165). He does not define clearly how the core patterns he found to be harmful such as "defensiveness" differ from normal and healthy responses. For example he says about healthy relationships "When people feel attacked they tend to respond negatively; usually in stable, happy marriages they respond in kind, while in unstable and unhappy marriages they escalate the negativity." (Gottman, 1999, p 10). And yet he says about defensiveness that it is one of the four most serious problems in relationship and its most common form is "counter-complaining, or counterattacking when attacked." ie responding in kind when feeling attacked as he previously said healthy couples do (Gottman, 1999, p 45).

However, in general, Gottman's research adds data which affirms and extends my own Transforming Communication approach to relationships. It further suggests that couples counseling is actually coaching the couple to communicate using these skills. In the field of parenting coaching, John Gottman says he admires the approach of Dr Haim Ginott, who teaches I messages, Reflective Listening and Win-Win Conflict Resolution in the same structure as we use in Transforming Communication. In discussing parenting relationships, Gottman again emphasizes the importance of "Communicating empathy and understanding of the emotions, even if these emotions underlie misbehaviour." (Gottman, 1999, p 330).

B. Transforming Communication For Couples

Clear Problem Ownership

Before discussing what a couples coach does, I want to review the Transforming Communication skills and emphasize what Gottman’s research adds to these. To begin using the methodology of Transforming Communication in any relationship situation, one simply checks whether at this moment ones own present internal state is desired or not (a "problem", as Dilts notes in Dilts, 1993, p193, is any distance between present state and desired state). One then steps into what NLP calls “second position” and checks whether the other person's internal state is desired by them or not. There are four possible results to these checks (Gordon, 1974, p38-39):

1) Neither of us owns a Problem. If both states are desired, then no problem exists, and the focus of communication can be towards individual and mutual enjoyment. In the situation where neither of us owns a problem, a larger range of language patterns will be safe to use (safe in the sense of preserving both of our self esteem, and preserving the relationship). This area offers the most potential for us to grow personally, as each of us has energy free from problem-solving to focus on our goals and on discovery. It is the area where a couple build their "positive emotional bank account" that they may need to draw on in conflict resolution. Gottman's research shows that successful couples devote approximately 20 minutes a day to non-problem activities such as:


If one of the people is in an undesired state, then they "own a problem" in the terms first used by Dr Thomas Gordon (1955). This does not mean that they are "at fault" or "should" change something. It simply means that they are not in their desired state. Possible results 2), 3), and 4) relate to this situation.

2) The other person owns a problem. If I am in a relationship where at this moment I feel okay, and the other person does not (ie they are in an undesired or "problem" state), it can be useful to focus my attention on assisting them to reach their desired state. This process, called Helping, is of course a common one when you are assisting a client to change. It also occurs when you are listening to your spouse talking about a difficult day, or when you offer to assist your co-worker to learn how to perform a new work task. The most effective skills for Helping will be ones that linguistically identify the problem space and the desired state as existing inside the other person's experience (I will say, for example, "So what you want to change is..." rather than "So what I think you should change is..."). These skills avoid patronising the person by suggesting what they "should" aim for, "should" feel and "should" be able to cope with. These skills include:


3) I own a problem. If I am in a relationship where at this moment the other person feels okay, and I do not (ie I am in an undesired or "problem" state), it can be useful to focus my attention on finding a way for me to reach my desired state. This process could be called Problem Solving. As we know in NLP, people own a problem in response to particular internal representations. If the representations related to my problem state are about the other person (if I'm upset or angry or hurt "about something they did", for example) then this process of problem solving is called Assertion. For example, I own a problem where I'm frustrated about my spouse's failure to wash the dishes, or where I'm resentful that I ended up doing extra work when my partner didn't arrive home on time. The most effective skill for Assertion will be one that linguistically identifies the problem and the desired state as existing inside my own experience ("What I want to change is..." rather than "So what you might want to do is..."). This skill is called an "I message" (Gordon, 1974, 139-145). In a conflict, a clear I message identifies:

An example of the format for an I message would be "When...[sensory specific behaviour], I feel...[congruent description of my internal state] and the effect on me is... [sensory specific effects of the behaviour]". This structure avoids insulting or blaming the other person, and avoids patronising them by telling them what they "should" do. By not suggesting one specific solution, it leaves the process of generating solutions until the other person’s situation has been heard and can be taken into account (as in examples below). Helping skills by themselves will be ineffective in the area where I own a problem, suggesting to the other person that it's up to them what solution is reached.

4) We both own a problem. This situation implies that some combination of linguistic skills will be useful (So what you want is... and what I want is...). Where we both own a problem in response to related internal representations, then this situation is a "Conflict". This doesn't mean that we are necessarily opposed to each other, or that one of us must win and one lose. It simply means that we both are upset, angry, hurt etc about related issues (eg I think we should spend more time together and the other person wants more space. I want to use the family car tomorrow and so does my partner) Such situations benefit from a combination of the helping and assertive skills, as well as from specific conflict resolution skills (including win-win conflict resolution, consulting and modelling).

John Gottman's research reveals that successful couples differ not merely in their handling of conflicts, but in their handling of each of these four Problem Ownership areas. That means that effective coaching of couples needs to teach the couple to respond differently in each of the four areas also (Gottman, 1999, p 59-61).

Effectively Raising A Concern

The situation would be very easy if problem ownership stayed constant throughout any conversation. If this was the case, in the “no-problem” situation, a conversation would involve simply exploring positive states and outcomes together. In the “other owns a problem” situation, a conversation would involve simply pacing the other person’s dilemma, assisting the other person to clarify what their outcome is, and guiding them through processes to assist change towards that. In the “I own a problem” situation, a conversation would involve simply asserting my position and identifying the changes I want.

In real life, it is more useful if I continuously monitor the changing internal states of myself and the other person, and adjust my language use to best represent the shifts of problem ownership, many of which are of course a result of my own previous communications. For example, in the midst of helping my partner solve her or his problem, I may discover that I myself am uncomfortable with the way my partner insists that I listen to complaints about what goes wrong, and does not shift to an outcome (solution focused) frame. From using Helping skills (“So for you the problem is...” and “So what you want is...”) I would then shift to using Assertive skills (“One thing I’m finding frustrating about the way you’re talking is...” and “I’d find it easier to help if...”).

Most particularly, once I have used an Assertive skill, a common outcome is for my partner to shift into the problem state themselves (to feel uncomfortable in response to my communication). When a person hears my I message “I resented the way you didn’t get that report to me on time as we’d arranged. It involved me in a lot of extra work” it is rare for them to respond with congruent joy and enthusiasm to improve next time. If you think of times when someone has, however skilfully, asserted themselves with you in this way, you’ll notice that you’re more likely to experience feelings of embarrassment, discomfort, hurt, annoyance, and mismatching responses. That is to say, you’re more likely to own a problem about the message, and possibly about the issue.

If I’ve used an I message (Assertion skill) and the other person owns a problem about that, the next step to getting my problem solved will be to shift back from Assertion, and help them solve their own problem. To do this, I simply use reflective listening (a Helping language pattern), to pace their concern (eg “You think I’m over-reacting...”). As NLP points out, there is no resistance, only a lack of rapport. Once the other person feels fully heard in their own problem state (evidenced usually by a nod of the head), then it becomes possible to restate my I message taking into account their comment. As they have now been heard, their “emotional temperature” is reduced, and they are more able to hear my concern and respond positively to it.

The process of resolving such a situation by alternating between I messages and reflective listening is called the two step” in Transforming Communication because it is like a dance. Here’s how it might sound in practice, in a discussion where Joan is using the model in a concern with her work colleague, Frank (notice that if Frank knew the model, the process would be even more fluent, but Joan can use the model regardless of this):

Joan: Frank, I have a problem I’d like to discuss. You arrived home an hour later than expected a couple of times last week and I didn’t get the time to myself in the evening that I was hoping for, and I guess I feel a bit resentful about spending that much of my day child-minding. [Joan “owns” a problem: she is the one who is concerned about what has happened, so she uses an I message. Frank is feeling Okay, so initially he doesn’t own a problem.]
Frank: [sighs] Lighten up Joan. I had a busy day; that’s all.
Joan: You think I’m over-reacting, and you had a lot of extra stuff to do. [Frank responds indicating that he owns a problem, so Joan does the Two Step and reflective listens him.]
Frank: [nods] Sure. And it’s no big deal.
Joan: Well, I still want to know that I have time to myself to do the things that I really want to do. My day is long too. [Frank’s nod indicates he feels paced/understood, so Joan Two Steps and restates her I message.]
Frank: Look, I guess I just forgot how important this can be to you. I’ll be more careful. How about, if I do arrive late in future, I could adjust later and give you extra time on the weekend.
Joan: Thanks. I would appreciate your help with that.
Frank: Okay. I just wasn’t thinking. Sorry. [Frank is now apologising. As he’s still not feeling totally comfortable, Joan again acknowledges his comments before thanking him for changing his approach.]
Joan: Well I’d appreciate sort of knowing that the time for myself is there. Thanks.

This, of course, is a “best case” scenario. There are two other possible outcomes of this discussion, described below. Both are “conflicts”.

John Gottman found that such discussions and conflicts occurred in even the best relationships, and that effective couples might get very emotional (even angry) as they talked about such issues, but they avoided certain key destructive behaviours. Those seven core behaviours to avoid (listed by Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 25-46) include:

• Harsh Startup of the discussion with an angrily stated “You message”
• Criticism of the person as a person rather than complaint about their behaviour.
• Contempt of the other person, conveyed nonverbally by raised eyebrows and a sneering facial expression, or verbally by mockery of the person’s position, sarcasm and hostile humour. This is the most serious of the seven behaviours, it is the fastest way to predict separation, and it is virtually unseen in successful relationships (Gottman, 1999, p 128)
• Defensiveness, expressed by arguing/blaming back while refusing to acknowledge the other’s concern or accept that they have a problem.
• Stonewalling, expressed by simply stopping talking without negotiating, or leaving the room.
• Becoming Emotionally Flooded, as a result of these behaviours, as evidenced by the person being physically over-aroused, with a pulse above 95 beats per minute.
• Failure of Repair Attempts and Self-nurturing behaviours, eg to call a halt for time to calm down, or to apologise and ask to start again, as these last patterns occur.

Three Types Of Conflict

The Two Step process will lead to one of three outcomes. Depending on which outcome occurs, you can easily identify which steps to take next to most effectively resolve the conflict.

Outcome 1) Misunderstanding. The Two Step process itself resolves the conflict (as above). Such conflict could be considered a simple miscommunication. In the example above, for instance, once Frank has clearly heard what Joan’s problem is (which is assisted by her use of I messages and reflective listening -both her use of clear first position and clear second position) the problem is solved. Conflicts of the type described as Closed Calibration Loops by Bandler and Grinder in the book Changing With Families (see Transforming Communication p 160-162) are of this type. No further action may be needed.

Outcome 2) Conflict of Needs. As a result of the Two Step process, it becomes clear that both people have a concrete problem. Both people can understand that the other person has a problem, though they are reluctant to solve the other person’s problem as this would leave them with their own difficulty. Thomas Gordon calls this a Conflict of Needs. In NLP terms it is a conflict which both parties have agreed to keep at the neurological level of environment, behaviour or capability (their values and sense of identity are not a subject of discussion, only how and where they do what). John Gottman calls this a “Solvable Conflict” and recommends developing solutions which honour both parties “dreams” in the conflict. In such a situation, Gordon recommends the skilled use of his 6 step win-win conflict resolution model (Gordon, 1974, p217-234), which is an analogue of NLP’s 6 step Reframing. Gordon’s six steps are:

1. Identify the problem in terms of two sets of needs, rather than two conflicting solutions. Needs are more chunked up descriptions than solutions, and are comparable to evidence procedures in NLP (“How will you know that this problem is solved?” rather than “What specific way would you suggest to solve this problem right now?”) or even to Positive Intentions (“If you get this solution, what do you get through that, that is even more important?) . Gottman describes this as discovering what are the “dreams” behind the stated solution.
2. Brainstorm potential solutions which could meet both sets of needs/outcomes/dreams.
3. Evaluate the ability of these proposed solutions to meet both sets of needs.
4. Choose a solution or more than one solutions to put into action.
5. Act
6. Evaluate the results.

An example would be if the conversation between Frank and Joan went like this:

Joan: Frank, I have a problem I’d like to discuss. You arrived home an hour later than expected a couple of times last week and I didn’t get the time to myself in the evening that I was hoping for, and I guess I feel a bit resentful about spending that much of my day child-minding. [Joan “owns” a problem: she is the one who is concerned about what has happened, so she uses an I message. Frank is feeling Okay, so initially he doesn’t own a problem.]
Frank: [sighs] Lighten up Joan. I had a busy day; that’s all.
Joan: You think I’m over-reacting, and you had a lot of extra stuff to do. [Frank responds indicating that he owns a problem, so Joan does the Two Step and reflective listens him.]
Frank: [nods] Sure. And if I come home without completing that stuff, I’ll end up in rouble at work.
Joan: So you want to make sure you get the things done at work that are your responsibility. Well, I still want to know that I have time to myself to do the things that I really want to do. My day is long too. Maybe we can find a way to meet both those concerns. [Frank now understands that Joan has a concrete problem, as his nod indicates, but if he agreed to help her, he’d have a problem of his own (trying to guess what issues were serious enough for her). This is what Thomas Gordon calls a Conflict of Needs and John Gottman calls a solvable problem. Joan sums up the two sets of needs/outcomes, and invites Frank to begin win-win conflict resolution to identify a solution which will meet both sets of needs/outcomes.]
Frank. [nods] Yeah. I guess I could adjust later and give you extra time on the weekend if I get home late in the week.
Joan: Thanks. That would work for me too. I would appreciate your help with that.
Frank: Okay. Lets do that.

Outcome 3) Conflict of Values. As a result of the Two Step process, it becomes clear that at least one person believes that the conflict involves their deeper beliefs, values or sense of identity. In Robert Dilts’ NLP model these are disagreements at a higher neurological level (Dilts, 1993, p 55-56). Such a person will be reluctant to engage in the sort of conflict resolution demonstrated above because their values are “non-negotiable”. Put another way, Person A believes that Person B is trying to change Person A’s values/identity, which Person A considers is really “none of Person B’s business”. This is what Thomas Gordon calls a “Values Collision” (Gordon, 1974, p283-306). Note that in this situation it is less likely that a satisfactory solution will be reached in one session.

John Gottman found that 69% of all relationship conflicts were in this category, in both successful and unsuccessful relationships (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 130). Gottman calls these conflicts “unsolvable problems”, where the partners’ basic dreams are in conflict. He doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about such conflicts; simply that they cannot be resolved in a session of “problem-solving” talk. In fact, he notes that successful couples learn to respect and honour each other’s differing values, and accept that the difference will continue for some time.

Thomas Gordon also recommends that many values conflicts are best dealt with by learning to live with the difference, or to altering the relationship so that the other person’s values do not clash so frequently with theirs. Skills that are recommended by Thomas Gordon for actually influencing others values include values consulting, and modelling. Modelling involves demonstrating, in ones own behaviour, the effectiveness of one’s values. Values consulting is a skilled linguistic influencing process which requires (Gordon, 1974, p294-297):

1. Ensuring you have been “hired” as a consultant (that the other person agrees to listen).
2. Preparing your case, especially any relevant information.
3. Sharing your expertise and opinions in simple I message form (“I believe...”) and shifting gears to active listen the other’s opinion.
4. Leaving the other to make up their own mind, rather than attempting to force a new value. People rarely change values in direct interaction with someone who shares the opposing value. It is more common for them to change at a later time, having been left in a positive state, to choose.

If you attempted to resolve Conflicts of Values as if they were Conflicts of Needs, it could well lead to disillusionment with the conflict resolution process, and the belief that “some people just cannot be engaged in a win-win conflict resolution way”. Here’s how the conversation between Frank and Joan might go if it was a Conflict of Values:

Joan: Frank, I have a problem I’d like to discuss. You arrived home an hour later than expected a couple of times last week and I didn’t get the time to myself in the evening that I was hoping for, and I guess I feel a bit resentful about spending that much of my day child-minding. [Joan “owns” a problem: she is the one who is concerned about what has happened, so she uses an I message. Frank is feeling Okay, so initially he doesn’t own a problem.]
Frank: [sighs] Lighten up Joan. I had a busy day; that’s all.
Joan: You think I’m over-reacting, and you had a lot of extra stuff to do. [Frank responds indicating that he owns a problem, so Joan does the Two Step and reflective listens him.]
Frank: [nods] Sure. I mean, that’s my life. My work is also important to me. I don’t really feel comfortable negotiating that with you. [Frank identifies a difference in values about the issue]
Joan: So you see that as your life to decide about. Well, I have a different way of thinking about that particular part of it – the timing piece. I’d like to discuss it some more some time. Would you be willing to hear my thoughts about that? [Joan reflective listens Frank’s value and identifies the difference.]
Frank: [sighs] Maybe.... Yeah, I guess so. I don’t want to get into a heavy discussion about it now though.
Joan: Great. How about the kids are out on Saturday: maybe we could put aside half an hour to clarify our approaches with each other. [Joan arranges to meet with Frank at a time that is easier for him to discuss their values difference. There, she will continue to use reflective listening and I messages to advocate her value, acting as what Thomas Gordon calls a “Values Consultant”, and modelling her values.]
Frank: Okay; that’ll work.

C. Coaching Couples To Transform Their Communication

I enjoy working with couples, especially when we can share a model of relationship such as Transforming Communication. Assisting couples to change successfully involves a strategy; an organised sequence of internal representations and external actions performed by the person assisting. I have described this helping sequence in terms of a simple 7 stage model, using the acronym RESOLVE (Bolstad, 2004). The 7 stages of this model are:

Resourceful state for the Practitioner
Establish rapport
Specify outcome
Open up model of world
Leading to desired state
Verify change
Ecological exit

Resourceful State

The first task of a coach working with a couple is to get into a resourceful state to help. This involves understanding what kind of things go wrong in relationships, and what kind of things can be done to support things going well. Generally, when couples come for counseling or coaching, they are either experiencing serious, unpleasant, unresolved conflict or at least one partner feels lonely and has major unmet needs for love and closeness. More often than not, at least one person is not hopeful about the chances of creating what they want within this relationship. In the largest survey ever done on reasons for divorce, 80% of divorced men and women said their relationship broke up because they gradually grew apart and lost a sense of closeness, or because they did not feel loved and appreciated. John Gottmans research shows that this is the core issue which (in only 20-27% of cases of divorce studied) led to an extramarital affair, and not the other way around. Affairs do not generally cause couples to move apart; being apart makes affairs possible. Furthermore, the loss of friendship and love is the core issue for both men and women, so, as Gottman says, maybe they do come from the same planet (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 16).

In using the coaching metaphor to discuss what you do with a couple, I am recommending that you see yourself as someone hired by the couple to improve their performance, like a sports coach. This coaching metaphor, as used by John Gottman, implies certain things about your intervention:

• The couples coach knows something about what makes relationships work. Like a sports coach, he or she has some skills to share. For me, those skills include most of all the ones I summarised in the last section on Transforming Communication.
• Couples coaching is an emotionally positive experience, where the coach is an ally who helps identify and extend existing relationship strengths and support clients in reaching for their own best dreams. The coach is not trying to manipulate the clients towards her/his own ideal marriage. Gottman says “My views on what works well in marriages are based solely on what “real people” do to have stable and satisfying marriages, whatever their socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial attributes…. I have often described my goal as fostering the “good enough marriage.” I am likely to think a marriage is good enough if the two spouses choose to have coffee and pastries together on a Saturday afternoon and really enjoy the conversation, even if they don’t heal one another’s childhood wounds or don’t always have wall-socket, mind-blowing, skyrocket sex—or even if they aren’t very individuated and even appear to some to be “symbiotic.” It works for them.” (Gottman, 1999, p 185)
• Couples coaching is aimed at empowering the clients themselves to use tools to validate each other, to calm themselves down when they are emotionally flooded, and to communicate in the way that the most successful relaters do. Gottman asks the client to act more positively, rather than providing the positive input himself as one might at times with an individual client. For example, he says: “Let me just stop you here, Mike. Research has shown that there are some patterns of interaction in marriages that are very destructive of love. These are being contemptuous and insulting, and being threatening. I cannot let you interact like that here. I suggest that you don’t at home either…. So please rephrase your complaints….” (Gottman, 1999, p 190).
• Couples coaching provides a graduated series of attainable steps – a training in relationship skills from the easiest to the most challenging. John Gottman explains his role metaphorically by saying: “I think of the model of a boxing coach, who, after the bell signals the end of a round, gives the boxer one very simple suggestion that can be used in the next round.” (Gottman, 1999, p 190).

Establish Rapport

When you work with a couple, two people are going to walk into the session, not one. You will want to build rapport with both people, and of course one (often the person who arranged the session) may feel more in rapport with you already. While it is tempting to pay most of your attention to that person, it is the other person whose rapport you need most of all, to have permission to help with this relationship. In successful couples coaching, there are, in a sense, three clients: each of the two people, and their relationship itself. The relationship is like a business partnership – it acts as an entity itself.

If only one person wants to preserve the relationship, you have not been hired by the relationship at all, but by one individual. In that case, what you are doing is much more like individual therapy with two people, each of whom has their own agenda. It helps to get clear about this at the start. I begin a couples session by asking what each person expects and wants from our time together.

Virginia Satir, for example, would often start by saying “I’m wondering what, as you’re all sitting here, as you’re thinking about it, what is it that you expect.” (from the transcript of a first session by Virginia Satir, recorded in Haley and Hoffman, 1967, p 99). Satir’s question is addressed to all those present. Her reflective listening will also be often addressed to all those present. For example, she summarises their response to this initial question by saying “You obviously are coming here to get all the help I can offer… it was hard for you to figure out why Gary was saying what he was saying. Just as hard as it was for him to figure out why you were saying and doing what you were doing.”

Gottman explains “In the initial assessment the spouses need to tell their own stories of their marital dilemma, and its history, and they need to present their theories of what the problems are in their marriage. This seems to be an essential need of all couples coming for therapy. During this process it is important that the therapist listen fairly and nonjudgmentally to both spouses, periodically summarize what is heard (and ask if there is anything else still missing from this summary), and form therapeutic alliances with both people.” (Gottman, 1999, p 194)

Gottman suggests that there are two situations in which he refuses to engage clients in couples coaching: cases where a partner is physically violent, and cases where there is an ongoing extramarital affair. Physical violence requires the building into the system of safety structures and it is unreasonable to expect that a person whose life is in danger will participate honestly in creating a new relationship. Gottman’s research showed that in such situations, shame results in the abused partner covering up their actual feelings in conjoint sessions (Gottman, 1999, p 118). Where there is an additional (extramarital) relationship, the coaching session is unable to include all the relevant people, and hence shares the fate of trying to counsel half a relationship by discussing relationship dynamics with only one partner. Partially to determine whether either of these conditions exist, Gottman recommends arranging brief individual sessions with each member after the first coaching session, to elicit a genuine sense of how committed each person is to the relationship – whether they really want to stay.

SPECIFY Outcomes

Usually the couples’ initial outcomes are described in “away from” terms. They tell you what they want to avoid, to move away from. John Gottman’s research shows that merely avoiding or “resolving” individual conflicts will not ensure that a relationship survives. He recommends beginning couples work with much more general tasks, designed to create positive experiences as quickly as possible, and to help him understand what outcomes he will be working towards. These tasks involve a number of questionnaires designed to have each member of the couple describe the quality of their friendship and the level of their conflict resolution skills, both now and when they first were attracted to each other.

When Gottman asks the couple to describe the story of their dilemma, he also directs their focus towards positive strengths by saying “I guess we’ll just start by telling me how you met.” (Gottman, 1999, p 134). Virginia Satir also asked couples to describe the story of their relationship, in particular to reassociate the couple back into the experience they had when they fell in love and when their relationship was going well. She says, for example “So now lets see how it was, as you think about it, when the family was all happy together.” (in Haley and Hoffman, 1967, p 112). In NLP terms this experience re-anchors the couple back into the feelings of love and attraction. It also goes some way towards deconstructing the significant reframes of the relationship history that a quarrelling couple develop, Gottman explains “I have found over and over that couples who are deeply entrenched in a negative view of their spouse and their marriage often rewrite their past.” (Gottman and Silver, 1999, p 42).

From collecting this story, Gottman is able to shift to the most significant outcome setting that he does, which is to ask the couple to tell him what their dreams of life together at its best would be. He encourages couples to rediscover these dreams within the very conflicts that they have been having, using the process NLP calls identifying positive outcomes. While he will later coach the couple in doing this themselves, at first it is Gottman who restates the complaints as dreams of how the relationship could be, for example (Gottman, 1999, p 138):

Emma: I want more of that. I now know in my life for the first time what it’s like to be in love with someone And being in love, you crave, you want. There are things that have to be done, but I miss that lengthy courtship. I thought it would continue once we were married. And it really hasn’t. We have just not had the time. So…
Gottman: So that’s a potential issue – how to build more time together into your marriage.

It is quite a moving experience for a couple to hear their worst frustrations reframed as dreams. As examples, Gottman suggests (1999, p 238) that by exploring you may discover that a client shifts from saying:

• “My partner is careless with money”  “I want to have the independence at the end of life that my parents don’t have, so I can relax about growing old.”
• “My partner is tight with money”  “I want to lead a moral and generous life within a world that is often very unfair to others. I want to carry on my parents tradition of giving money to charity.”

Gottman’s idea is that people stay in relationships when those relationships nourish or at least respect the existence of their dreams. The goal to “resolve our conflicts” just isn’t big enough to make a relationship work!

Insoo Kim Berg and the other Solution Focused therapists (Berg, 1994)have emphasised that setting outcomes with a member of a couple involves asking for specific, positive descriptions of both what they will do different and what their partner will do different in response. It also involves checking for times when the problem has not occurred (both real or imagined) to check what skills the person has available already. Examples of solution focused questions could include:

a. Asking for a description of the person’s outcome. For example:
• “What has to be different as a result of you talking to me?”
• “What do you want to achieve?”
• “What would need to happen for you to feel that this problem was solved?”
• “How will you know that this problem is solved?”
• “When this problem is solved, what will you be doing and feeling instead of what you used to do and feel?”
• “What would your partner need to know was different so that they realise that this problem is solved?”

b. Asking about when the problem doesn’t occur (the exceptions). For example:
• “When is a time that you noticed this problem wasn’t quite as bad?”
• “What was happening at that time? What were you doing different? What was your partner doing different”

c. If there are no exceptions, asking about hypothetical exceptions using the “Miracle” question: “Suppose one night there is a miracle while you are sleeping, and this problem is solved. Since you are sleeping, you don’t know that a miracle has happened or that your problem is solved. What do you suppose you will notice that’s different in the morning, that will let you know the problem is solved?” After the miracle question, you can ask other followup questions such as:

• “What would your partner notice was different about you?”
• “What would your partner do differently then?”
• “What would it take to pretend that this miracle had happened?”

Open Up The Partners’ Models Of The World

Creating successful relationships involves reframing what is happening in the relationship. The research on successful partnerships shows that happy partners adopt an “optimistic explanatory style" to account for their partner’s behaviour. They assume that all the things they approve of in their partner are a result of the positive qualities that they so love. All the things that they don’t approve of are simply a result of circumstances such as their partner’s childhood, stressful events in their immediate life situation, or misunderstandings. These are the same rose tinted glasses which people who enjoy life use to look at their own situation through (Seligman, 1997).

Leslie Cameron-Bandler suggests that to assist a couple who want to develop a more tolerant attitude to their partner’s behaviour you can use a technique based on this type of optimistic explanatory style (1985, p 210). She suggests that you identify the behaviour the person objects to in their partner. Then tell them:

• Imagine yourself doing that behaviour in your relationship, and ask “What circumstances would cause me to behave in this way?” and “What understandable goal might I be trying to reach by doing this behaviour?”
• Ask yourself “How could I behave differently towards my partner, knowing the possible circumstances or goals that might cause that behaviour?”
• Ask yourself “In what way is this behaviour that I object to actually a manifestation of some quality that, at other times, I admire in my partner?”
• Ask yourself “What are the qualities I most want from my partner in this relationship?” and then “How could I more fully live and express those qualities myself, in this situation where my partner behaves in this way that I object to?”

In order to have this optimistic explanatory style, it helps for clients to understand that they and their partners may have different personality traits (what NLP calls metaprograms), different values, and different beliefs. In general, just knowing this will be enough to enable a shift towards a positive relationship. At times, these differences will be the basis of ongoing conflicts of values. Most of these, Gottman’s research shows, can be easily incorporated into a successful relationship. One of the most challenging differences is in opinions about the appropriate way of handling emotion. Some successful couples shout and “let off steam” a lot, while other equally successful couples avoid such expression of strong negative emotions altogether, and others express emotions verbally and acknowledge the emotions verbally. All three styles work. Where the two people in a relationship have different emotional styles, the challenge of relationship is greatly increased though (Gottman, 1999, p 95)

Questionnaires such as the Myers Briggs or Kiersey Bates personality questionnaires, or in NLP the LAB Profile questionnaire, elicit metaprogram differences that will be important for a couple to understand. For a trained NLP Practitioner, such differences may be obvious in their first interaction with a couple. An example I teach about early on n NLP training is the difference in sensory preference (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, auditory digital) as demonstrated in the following conflict:

Brent: [glancing up right repeatedly, and talking in higher, faster voice] Well my first concern is that I can’t see how we’re supposed to get things done when Jill leaves the house in such chaos. It doesn’t look to me like she’s at all committed to the relationship.
Jill: [looking down right fairly constantly, and talking in a slower, deeper voice] I can’t understand why Brent gets so gripped up about this. He charges in and out of the house a couple of times every day. And even though we’re doing things together, we never get much time to touch base. Feels to me like that’s where the lack of commitment is!
Brent: Now see, this is the problem. When we do meet, it’s as if Jill has a very black and white picture of my part of the relationship. I try to give her a sense of vision about where I see us going with this, and she’s kind of got her eyes fixed on the desk in front of her, you know. So our discussions are me trying to get the bigger picture, and her focused on what needs doing today.
Jill: It’s not so easy to feel motivated by the grand scheme when you don’t feel comfortable with the situation at hand. If we had more time to work through things on a daily basis, I’d feel more like we had somewhere to launch things from.

Another part of opening up a couple’s models of the world involves teaching them to understand what happens between them as a system, rather than as a direct one way influencing process. Clients frequently come in believing that their partner (who has personal problems) initiates the conflict between them. I want the couple to understand that both people could begin from very understandable positions and yet end up, by a sequence of interactions, in conflict.

For example, Gottman describes a common systemic male-female conflict pattern that results from the different ways mens and womens bodies respond to stress. Under stress, men secrete more noradrenaline, making them more prone to fear and anger. This makes stressful emotional situations more challenging for men to “pull out” from. Women under stress secrete more oestrogen, a hormone which encourages bonding. To a woman’s body, emotional stress is a signal to move closer to others; to a man’s body, it is a signal to attack or flee. Consequently, men avoid raising issues that may lead to emotional stress.

By the time women raise an issue, their frustration level is already high, and they are more likely to use criticism and blaming in their startup (the first of Gottman’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that indicate divorce risk). Men then tend to respond with defensiveness (the second horseman). Since their attempt to resolve the conflict has been rejected, women then often express contempt (the third horseman) and this is damaging enough to result in the man avoiding any further discussion, thus “stonewalling” (the fourth horseman). (Gottman, 1999, p 41-47).

None of the steps in this sequence can be understood without knowing what precipitated it, and the whole system is a cycle which plays over and over until separation occurs. I reflective listen whole sequences such as this, once I have heard them from the couple (eg “So it’s a little scary for you to bring up issues John, and that gets you frustrated and means you start off with fairly strong statements sometimes Joan, and then when you defend yourself John, it gives you the sense that nothing is possible here Joan, so that after a while John you get the sense that there’s so much hostility here that it makes sense just to check out of the whole conflict. Is that right?”) In such a sequence, to blame one partner for the conflict is irrelevant. The only relevant response is to change both people’s responses. That is my next task with a couple.

Leading to New Ways of Relating

The central task of my session with a couple involves exploring the actual structure of their communication with each other in the session, and literally coaching them in how to engage in such discussions. The structure of this communication is more important than the theoretical content (which may be any of the above issues, or some issue that the couple have been disagreeing about previously). I use the Transforming Communication model as a basis for our discussing what is happening between the couple, and for selecting which skills will be most useful to use at a particular time.

This is where couples work becomes fundamentally different to individual work. The metamodel is an NLP tool for getting people to send sensory specific I messages, and to initiate sensory specific feedback in the communication process (see Transforming Communication p 122-123). It was developed by classifying linguistically all the questions that Virginia Satir asked as a family therapist. Once we have identified the outcomes for our work together, most of my interaction with the clients is done using questioning tools such as the metamodel, to reframe experiences in sensory specific terms, and using reflective listening tools to validate their expanding learnings, as in the following example from early in a coaching process:

Person A: “You’re being incredibly insensitive; that’s what’s wrong here!”
Coach: “So that’s what really upsets you. Can I just check, how, specifically, is he/she being insensitive?”
Person A: “Well, the way she/he wasn’t listening when I said all that.”
Coach: “Oh; so you had the impression he/she wasn’t listening. [to Person B] Were you?”
Person B: “Of course I was. I heard every word. That’s so insulting.”
Coach: “So as far as you were concerned you were listening. [to Person A] And as far as you were concerned, she/he wasn’t. What would let you know she/he actually was listening?”
Person A: “Well, if he/she looked in my direction of course.”
Coach: [to Person B] “Did you know that was what she needed to see to feel listened to?”
Person B: “No. “
Coach: “So this may have happened several times, and when she/he complained, you would have felt insulted; is that right?”
Person B: “Yes. And I suppose that once I feel that way, I actually do listen less.”
Person A: “Exactly. So how am I supposed to know if your listening, if you don’t even look at me?”
Coach: “That’s what we’re after isn’t it. A way you can know that he/she’s really hearing you. And one solution is for him/her to look at you. Another thing I might add is...Do you feel listened to by me?”
Person A: “Sure.”
Coach: “Because I’m aware that one thing I’m doing is checking whether I’ve understood what you say before I reply each time. Sort of restating it to find out if I got it right. And that gives us both feedback about whether I understand you.”

In this sequence, the coach uses the metamodel questions, combined with reflective listening. She/he also models and teaches this feedback process. It would have been so easy for the therapist to have assumed (with person A) that they both knew what “not listening” or even “being insensitive” meant to each of them. In couples therapy the secret is to internally question every definition and every presupposition! Just because one person refers to something and the other person nods doesn’t mean they both know what they’re talking about.

If a client says “You always sound so angry. Can’t you just be friendly?” a coach could intervene and ask the person to rephrase their comment as an I message. They might also respond using reflective listening: “ She sounded angry when she said that. Do you mean she always sounds that way to you?” or “You’d like her to be more friendly. What specifically would she do that would be “being friendly”?” These questions are metamodel questions. More examples of this process are given in Satir, Bandler and Grinder’s book Changing with Families. The metamodel, again, encourages the other person to send clear “I messages”. Notice, however, that I do not recommend initially that you teach the metamodel to the couple. The metamodel is a mismatching skill; it chunks down and disagrees with the other person, and requires a high level of rapport to be used successfully.

My focus in coaching is to help the couple learn a new process of relating, not to solve particular content issues. As in all communication, the content is seductive; by which I mean that it’s tempting to get involved in the issues, in finding a solution, in who said what when, in who really has what values, metaprograms or negative anchors. The key to successful couples work is to pay attention most of the time to the process. Sorting out a particular conflict is a great experience, but without understanding the structure of effective communication, the couple are likely to return again and again to get help with future conflicts. Knowing this means I’m willing for us not to complete discussing a particular content in the session, if we can use the time to install a more successful communication process.

Once I have shared the full Transforming Communication model with clients, I can coach them to run through it with specific conflicts which have puzzled them. For example;

Person A: “For example, we had a conflict yesterday about which shirt he should wear to the restaurant.”
Coach: “OK, great. Can I just check who owned a problem at that time, when you started talking about that?”
Person A: “Well I think he has a problem letting go of old shirts that are no longer wearable.”
Coach: [to Person B] “Did you have a problem, in the terms we mean – were you upset about that?”
Person B: “Not until she hassled me about it.”
Coach: [to Person A] “OK. So you had a problem?”
Person A: “I guess. I think he needs to throw out some of those old shirts.”
Coach: “Great. Let’s replay that. How would you start, knowing that you have a problem?”
Person A; [to Person B] “I’d like you to let go of some of those old shirts.”
Coach: “Can I check; what is the sensory specific behaviour, how do you feel about it, and are there any concrete effects on you.”
Person A: “OK. When you wear one of those old shirts with a hole in it, I feel embarrassed, and the effect is that I don’t want to go out with you.”
Coach: “I get the behaviour and the feeling in there. Can I just check; the concrete effect. Is that something that you think he would agree is an actual result that has to happen when he does that, or is it something he thinks is in your control.”
Person A: “Hmmm. In my control. So what’s the concrete effect?”
Coach: “Doesn’t look to me like there is one. That’s still fine. If you send the I message, lets find out what happens.”
Person A: “I’ll see. [to Person B] When you wear one of those old shirts with a hole in it, I feel embarrassed.”
Person B: “Well I’m very fond of that shirt. It has special meaning to me.”
Person A: [to Coach] “I’m so tempted to get back into this…. But I know the next step is to reflect what he said…” [to Person B] “So you like it.”
Person B; “Sure. It’s my shirt, my choice. I don’t tell you what shirts to wear.”
Coach: “If I can pause you at that point” [to Person B] “It’s not necessary to raise the issue of what other conflicts you have or don’t have. You could even reflect her concern.”
Person B: [to Person A] “So you don’t like that shirt because it looks scruffy?”
Person A: “Right. I guess this is a values difference. I enjoy looking at you much more when you’re wearing something tidier.”
Person B: “Well, that’s useful to know. I like when you enjoy looking at me… and I also want to choose my own shirts.”
Person A: “Fair enough.”
Coach: [to both] “How was that?”
Person A: “More successful than what I did last night, but still not resolved.
Person B: “Yeah”
Coach “And that may be the way it is – unresolved. Because this is a values conflict with no concrete effect. It’s still really important, and over time this may change.”

Because my aim is to have the couple self monitor and use the skills of effective relating themselves, I can also coach them nonverbally by asking them to discuss their issue standing up, and to shift one step forward each time their partner’s communication leads them to feel closer, one step back each time it leads them to feel more distant. In teaching Transforming communication, we use a very sophisticated version of this “sociometric” process” to demonstrate the “Two Step”, and with newer clients the simple “distance-closeness” version gives valuable feedback. This only needs to be done for a few sentences to give clear feedback to all of us, not only about the effect of such unhelpful strategies as criticism, but also about whether one or both partners have anchored themselves into such a negative state that any comment at all comes across as an attack and creates distance.

When the anchoring is that destructive, I would usually recommend individual sessions. Extramarital affairs and major arguments frequently create emotionally traumatic responses which benefit from the NLP Trauma cure or Time Line Therapy™. I strongly recommend arranging such session for both partners, in that case, because there is a risk of labelling one person as the “sick” partner otherwise. One person’s session may of course involve primarily trauma cure work while the other person’s involves values clarification or even coaching in how to respond to conflicts.

Verify Change

The time that the clients are with me is certainly only a small fraction of the time they have available for enhancing their relationship. Setting them tasks to do in their own time greatly increases the value of their coaching. Even more interestingly, clients can be asked to design their own task based on their own assessment of their current situation. This, of corse, is a behaviour that would be useful for them to continue after the coaching has officially finished. As they report back the next session on the tasks they have attempted, tasking also gives me valuable feedback about how fully they are now able to put into practice what they have learned in our sessions. Tasking, rather than mere verbal reporting, forms the most effective feedback, because as mentioned earlier in this article, most couples counselling clients report very favourably on their counselling sessions even when the result of those sessions is the dissolution of their relationship. Here are some examples of the type of tasks couples may assign themselves:

• To spend 10 minutes each day checking in and reporting on what is happening in each person’s life.
• To spend 10 minutes each listening to the other person talking about their dreams of what this relationship could offer.
• To spend 15 minutes with one person listening to the other, using reflective listening about an issue outside the conflict between the two people; then reversing the roles and repeating.
• To have a 30 minute discussion about a values conflict, not aiming to reach an agreement but to understand the dreams behind the values being expressed.
• To resolve a minor conflict of needs using the win-win process.
• To have each person design an evening which meets some need, value or dream of theirs that they feel is not fully met in the relationship usually, and have the couple experience these evenings over the next fortnight.
• To experiment with some small behaviour that each person would like to do but has felt unable to so far in the relationship.
• To work together on some small one hour joint project of mutual benefit.

It is useful to comment here on what other therapists would describe as provocative or paradoxical interventions. Usually these are interventions that set the couple the task of doing what they thought was the problem. They are very useful when the couple have been “trying unsuccessfully” to do what they think is right, and have built up a kind of “internal resistance” to success. These tasks are “paradoxical” only in a “logical” sense, and do not require the coach to “trick” or manipulate the couple. They can be explained quite openly to the couple. Perhaps the most well known example of such a task is in sexual therapy where a couple who have been attempting unsuccessfully to have sexual intercourse will be given the task of mutual pleasuring without any actual intercourse. Freed from the “requirement” to try and “consummate” their sexual contact, they can then relax and enjoy lovemaking. The effect of “not having full sexual contact” is now reversed. Instead of being a problem, it becomes a solution. This experience of just pleasuring is itself often all the couple need in order to make sexual intercourse possible (Kaplan, 1974, p 232-236).

As another example, I had a couple come to see me when one partner had very little sexual response within the relationship but had good sexual response to a fantasy situation (a fantasy which he felt uncomfortable about discussing). As we talked it became clear that his struggle not to think about the fantasy situation meant that he was shutting down his sexual responsiveness with his partner. I gave this couple the task of “taking the energy from the fantasy into their relationship” – not actually acting out the fantasy (which is frequently not what a person with such a fantasy congruently “wants” anyway) but requiring him to fantasise while making love. This is the very thing they both feared, of course, and prescribing it seems paradoxical. However since they were now doing this in the service of their relationship, the task actually reversed the effect of the fantasy. This prescription is also used by sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan (1974, p249-251).

John Gottman, like most couples coaches, will often give a couple the task of having a conflict happen, while they are on their own, at a prescribed time. This is exactly what the couple has feared, but since they are now choosing consciously to have the conflict, the experience is fundamentally different. That in itself changes the nature of not only this conflict but all subsequent conflicts. From being things that happen uncontrollably, conflicts become events that the two people can choose to have. Conflicts become planned explorations of their dreams and needs. Gottman will often require the couple not to reach any conclusion at all, once again freeing them to listen to each other and share their actual responses, without feeling that they need to “convince” the other or to find and commit themselves to a perfect solution (Gottman, 1999, p 247-251).

Ecological Exit

It would be a dangerous illusion to suggest to a couple that after couples coaching their problems are “solved”. They will still want to monitor their own emotional state, checking that their friendship feels strong, and monitor their conversations, checking that they use their new skills. Gottman suggests that couples coaching is complete as soon as a couple demonstrate their ability to have a conflict, make mistakes, and self correct afterwards. He also recommends that couples build into their life some ongoing rituals of positive emotional connection - such as times they go out for a meal, ten minute check in times after their day apart, ways of celebrating their successes both individual and as a couple (Gottman, 1999, p 288-291).

Summarising

The Revolution In Couples Therapy

Not only do over half of all couples in western relationships find maintaining there relationship difficult, but traditional couples counselling offers little help. John Gottman’s research on the specific language patterns of successful couples meshes well with NLP’s modelling of language patterns to provide an alternative approach. This approach is a solution focused skills coaching approach.

Transforming Communication For Couples

The Transforming Communication model of relationships is based on clear problem ownership, which enables each person to monitor whether anyone is not happy with the situation they are in (whether anyone “owns a problem” to use the jargon) and respond with appropriate skills for the four very different situations that occur. When neither person owns a problem, then relationship enhancing processes such as appreciation, shared pleasure and shared activities can be used. When the other owns a problem, rapport skills, open questions and reflective listening assist them to feel understood and find their own solutions. When I own a problem, I send an I message describing the behaviour I’m not happy with, the way I feel about that, and any concrete effects on me. In response to the person’s reaction to this, I use reflective listening to help them hear my message. In this way I avoid Gottman’s high risk behaviours – harsh startup, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, emotional flooding and failed repair attempts.

In a simple misunderstanding, this will solve the problem. In a conflict of needs, we will identify each of our basic needs/outcomes and find win-win solutions to meet both sets of needs/outcomes. In a conflict of values, we will model our own values and share them as values consultants with each other, accepting that there may be no immediate solution.

Coaching Couples To Transform Their Communication

The coaching model has seven key steps to it:
Resourceful state for the Practitioner. This includes getting your role clear as an ally who will coach the couple in the use of new skills.
Establish rapport. In this case you wan to check your level of rapport with each person and check whether you are hired to support the relationship as an entity.
Specify outcomes. Invite the couple to recontact their highest outcomes for the relationship – their dreams of what this could provide them and ask solution focused questions to help get specific examples of both what they want and what skills they already have.
Open up model of world. Reframe the relationship as a system where each person’s responses are involved in generating the others’. Have them identify how different values, beliefs and metaprogams (personality styles) shape their responses. Have them step into each others shoes and experience how they could generate the kind of response they have seen in their partner.
Leading to desired state. Coach the couple to change their communication both in conflict situations and in everyday positive situations, so that they create a relationship that honours their dreams. Coaching involves the use of reflective listening, metamodel questioning, and direct instruction in application of the Transforming Communication skills.
Verify change. Give the couple tasks to complete at home to enhance both the positive experiences in their relationship and the conflict experiences. At times tasks will prescribe actions which seem to contradict the clients’ aims, in order that they have space to present themselves as they are rather than as they are trying to be. Once they are self correcting in the completion of tasks such as conflict resolution, coaching is successful.
Ecological exit. Encourage clients to build in ongoing monitoring systems to check both their emotional state and their use of the Transforming Communication skills.

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP trainer and life partner with Julia Kurusheva. He teaches on several continents each year. He can be contacted at +64-9-478-4895 or by email at richard@transformations.net.nz and his internet site is at www.transformations.net.nz

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