Channel-Checking: One Simple Trick to Improve Communication in Relationships
A first line of defense against relationship arguments
Imagine you arrive home from a stressful day at work, and begin to tell your partner all about your day. When you mention that your lunch was stolen from the fridge at work, you’re expecting some mild consolation – something along the lines of “oh wow that sucks – what did you do?”
Instead, how they respond is they start to ask you, “Did you try moving your lunch to the very back of the fridge? Maybe you could write your name on your lunch. Oh! Maybe you could ask a co-worker to spy on the fridge all morning to catch them in the act!”
Despite your partner’s best efforts to be helpful in thinking through ways you could solve the problem, that wasn’t what you were looking for when you brought it up. Instead of feeling more connected, you feel condescended to. “After all, is my partner saying they don’t think I could come up with a plan of what to do?”
Many of us are familiar with this dynamic but may not until now have a name to put to it. It actually arises because of the two different functions of communication we may have in our relationship:
1) problem-solving conversations
2) sharing thoughts/feelings conversations
The thing that sets problem-solving conversations apart is that they have a particular goal in mind or particular problem that you and your partner are trying to solve: Your ride to the airport canceled on you and you need to find another way there. Or maybe you’re trying to figure out in your shared finances how much you have saved up for a vacation. These conversations can be ineffective when both partners are not clear on the goal, or when they may in actually have different goals.
In contrast, sharing thoughts/feelings conversations do not have a particular goal in mind or problem to solve. Instead, they are focused on the general relationship goals of sharing personal information and growing the bond between partners: You share about your most embarrassing memory and laugh at it together. Or maybe your partner shares about their hopes and dreams for the coming year.
There are many ways these conversations can be ineffective, but one major way they can go awry is when one partner is looking to have a sharing thoughts/feelings conversation and the other partner is under the impression that it’s a problem-solving conversation, like the stolen lunch example above.
When both partners are not on the same page as to what type of conversation they’re having, they can end up in misunderstandings and arguments that otherwise don’t need to happen. The couple therapy skill designed to prevent this is called Channel-Checking.
It uses the metaphor of different types of conversations being like different channels on the television (or if you will, YouTube). It works as simply as asking the following question (or your own version of it):
“I want to make sure we’re on the right channel – are you wanting to share thoughts and feelings right now, or wanting help with problem-solving?”
Most of the time, a true clarification question like this is met with understanding and good faith by a partner, and can help prevent situations like that described at the top of this post. Try this out today to see what this simple question can do for your relationship as a first line of defense against arguments and conflict!
In this process, it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.