Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings New York City

Overcoming Obstacles in Couples’ Communication

By Michael Mongno, PhD

We communicate to fulfill seven basic needs: to impart information, solve a problem, express a need or desire, convey an opinion, express a feeling, show or request empathy, or connect through humor or shared experience.

For any of these to happen effectively, the speaker must be clear about the need(s), and the listener must register what’s being said. This is a tall order, since often the speaker isn’t being totally clear or the listener is not actively listening.

For instance, if someone in a relationship is feeling hurt, rather than tuning in to that feeling and expressing it, what gets expressed can be a judgment (usually hurtful in itself), an unresolved historical reference, or an indirect feeling, which is often passive-aggressive. The listener is left to figure out what the speaker needs. (It rarely occurs to him or her to simply ask.)

Worse, the listener often gets defensive, reacting emotionally or tuning the speaker out while preparing a rebuttal. What unfolds is a drama of someone being triggered and lashing out, and the partner responding in kind. This dynamic can grow in intensity, or it can flatten when one party withdraws altogether. Then the speaker feels even angrier, because not only is the partner not listening, but he or she is no longer even engaged.

So how can we prevent such escalating psychodramas, which can continue for hours in never-ending loops of hurtful interaction? The answer is a technique called “authentic dialogue.” It ensures that both parties engage in effective communication and strategic problem solving.

My next article will explore this solution more fully, but in the meantime, consider how this issue resonates with you personally. Does it reflect your own way of communicating with your partner or other people in your life? Does it remind you of others—your parents, perhaps?

Dr. Michael Mongno is the founder of, which won the 2015 Best Business of NY award for Counseling & Mental Health.