Free 'Relationships 101' workshop aims to help avoid four crucial 'Don'ts'

When relationships break down, it’s often because of communication problems, says Montreal clinical psychologist Mara Riff, whose Westmount centre is hosting a series of “therapy light” workshops.

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Relationships are crucially important to our health and well-being, says Montreal clinical psychologist Mara Riff — not only romantic liaisons, but also family relationships, work relationships and friendships.

They’re also complicated. And when relationships break down, it’s often because of communication problems, she said.

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“We tend not to communicate effectively,” said Riff, clinical director and co-founder of Openspace Clinic, a wellness space in Westmount. “I think the first step in a healthy relationship is to learn to communicate.”

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And yet, we have become worse communicators than we once were because we are called on less these days to actually communicate with one another.

“If I think about the way we communicate now compared to the way we communicated 20 years ago, we don’t have phone calls with people. We text. We aren’t taking the time to sit down with our friends as much as we used to.

“Younger people don’t have the communications skills older people do because they have not had the same opportunities: You had to get on the phone; you had to meet people at a park.

“This generation has grown up in front of a screen,” Riff said. “Even making eye contact is challenging for some. The way we communicate has dramatically changed.”

Communication in relationships, a kind of Relationships 101, is the topic of one of three workshops being offered by Openspace Clinic in a series Riff is calling “therapy light.” All are free of charge and open to the public.

“There is something very powerful about the experience of sitting in a group. It is very, very different from sitting one-on-one in therapy,” Riff said. “The idea is to get people together. The workshops are for people who will appreciate the opportunity to share with others and to sit and talk with a clinician.”

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The target audience is broad, she said: It includes clients who are already in therapy and need extra support, people who are curious and might not be able to afford therapy, and people who have always been hesitant about the notion of therapy.

The workshops, to take place in March and April, will be supervised by a senior clinician and facilitated by McGill University graduate students nearing the end of their training, either completing doctoral degrees in psychology or master’s degrees in social work.

Kelsey Huson and Alesha Frederickson pose for a photo while smiling
Psychology students Kelsey Huson, left, and Alesha Frederickson at Openspace Clinic in Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Alesha Frederickson and Kelsey Huson, both McGill doctoral candidates in educational and counselling psychology, will facilitate the workshop on communication in relationships, to take place March 14. They will draw on the work of psychologists John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, who have described four elements at the core of unhealthy communication in a relationship.

Although the Gottmans’ work is based on couples research, these skills are applicable across all relationships, said Frederickson. “Our goal is to help individuals identify and explore their use of different communication and to recognize any tactics they employ that could impede effective communication.”

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The March 14 workshop is intended to highlight assertive communication — a healthy form of communication that is direct and honest, as opposed to passive communication, which is not saying what needs to be said, or aggressive communication, which is coming on too strong, said Huson.

Integral to the Gottman principles are four key “Don’ts” — and their antidotes.

The first “Don’t” is criticism — verbally attacking someone’s character or personality rather than addressing a specific behaviour or action, said Frederickson and Huson: It can be perceived as an attack on the person’s core identity.

A “Do” intended to counter criticism is a gentle startup approach, which can entail using “I” statements, as in “I feel upset when you don’t do the dishes” or “I really need to feel like we are partners in household chores,” they said. Express complaints without blame and offer constructive suggestions, as in: “How about we split household chores? Maybe you take the dishes Monday and Wednesday, and I’ll do them Tuesday and Thursday.”

The second “Don’t” is contempt. This involves attacking someone’s sense of self with an intent to insult or hurt that person. Often it involves feelings of superiority or disrespect and may be manifested by sarcasm, name-calling and belittling remarks, all of which can seriously damage a relationship.

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A way to counter contempt is to cultivate appreciation and admiration for the other person by reminding yourself of all the good things that person does, or of their positive qualities. Try to understand your partner’s perspective. Communicate with respect and kindness and avoid sarcasm or belittling remarks.

The third “Don’t” is defensiveness. “This is really about the response to feeling blamed or attacked,” said Frederickson. “Not listening, but just responding with excuses, denying responsibility or counter-attacking. It’s a natural reaction to criticism, but can escalate conflict and get in the way of constructive communication.”

A way to counter defensiveness is to take responsibility for your part in the conflict, said Huson. If someone says “You always” or “You never,” there may be grains of truth in the criticism. Acknowledge them; if needed, apologize and make amends.

The fourth “Don’t” is stonewalling, “a complete withdrawal or shutdown, response to conflict and a refusal to engage with the other person,” said Frederickson. “This can be really detrimental to relationships.”

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Although it might seem like a way to avoid conflict, stonewalling actually distances the person from the relationship and exacerbates problems by preventing work on arriving at a solution that works for both parties, she said.

It’s a good idea to take a break — but commit to returning to the conversation later, Huson said. When one feels overwhelmed, it’s also important to practise grounding and self-soothing techniques, she said: These can include noticing five objects in the room, placing one’s hand on one’s heart or noticing one’s toes on the floor.

“Working on these skills and on communication skills in general will lead to healthier relationships,” said Huson.

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Openspace Clinic is offering three free workshops, with a limit of 12 to 15 participants per workshop, open to all. They will be held at the Openspace Clinic in Westmount. To register, email [email protected] by March 7. Registrants will be screened.

  • Grieving romantic relationships: a three-part workshop for young people age 20 to 30 who are having difficulty getting past a relationship that has ended and feel stuck in a grieving process. March 13, 20 and 27, 7 to 8:30 pm.
  • A one-session group on communication in relationships, a kind of Relationships 101, with tips on effective communication and an opportunity to share experiences. March 14, 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Leap Into High School: a one-session workshop for Grade 6 students intended to build confidence and connections. April 8, 6 to 7:30 p.m.

[email protected]

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