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The Art of Intimate Conversation

Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT

In today’s society, people tend to talk past each other. They don’t listen well and rarely ask one another questions, or follow a straight line of thought. The famous Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget called this phenomenon “collective monologue.” He was describing conversations among preschoolers, but his term characterizes many grown-up conversations as well. Unfortunately, talking past each other with frequency is also common in long-term relationships—and between couples it is damaging. Such cross-talk prevents partners from achieving the kind of closeness that solidifies a bond.

For this reason, in his book What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal (2014), Dr. John Gottman proposes what he calls “the art of intimate conversation.” According to Gottman, “Intimate conversation doesn’t require that you discuss conflicts or touchy subjects. It is just about talking.” While the conflict in a relationship does need to be addressed, attuned communication in everyday life is necessary to maintain any relationship and can prevent disagreements from even starting. You can apply these conversational skills on your own without your partner knowing it, but the more you work together on the process, the better. Dr. Gottman breaks down this process in four steps.

  1. Put Your Feelings into Words

Many people, particularly men, have difficulty identifying and verbalizing their emotions. Because they aren’t sure what’s going on inside, they are unable to share their feelings with their partner. Distinguished psychologist and philosopher Dr. Eugene Gendline suggested an approach that he called focusing. When you’re hunting for the right word to describe a feeling, he suggests you “try on” each word while monitoring your physical responses to it. When your body relaxes, you’ve probably hit on the correct description of your emotions. Another option is to have a vocabulary list of emotions. Dr. Gottman provides an abbreviated version of a list in What Makes Marriage Last?, but such lists can be found free on the Internet. Scan the words and circle the ones that most describe your current state. Finally, let your partner know that identifying your feelings is a challenge and consider enlisting him or her to assist you in figuring them out.

  1. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Avoid questions that your partner can punt with single words such as yes or no, which kill conversations before they start. Rather, pose questions in ways that require a deeper response. Replace, “Did you have a good day at work?,” with “So, what was it like at work today?” Instead of “Did you like the movie?” try “What did you think of the movie?” or “What was the best part?” This technique doesn’t apply just to everyday exchanges but also to conversations about significant issues. “Are you upset?” can close off further discussion, but “You seem upset—what’s going on?” will encourage it.

  1. Follow Up with Statements That Deepen Conversation

After your partner answers a question, respond by saying back what you just heard, in your own words. It’s okay if your description isn’t 100 percent accurate, but don’t make assumptions or put words into the other’s mouth. When you reflect back your partner’s thoughts and feelings in an understanding manner, you encourage him or her to open up more.

  1. Express Compassion and Empathy

When your partner is upset, be on his or her team whether the issue is trivial or significant. If you think your mate is overreacting or should have a “different” emotional response, stifle the urge to offer your opinion or suggestions. After years of studying both the “Masters” and “Disasters” of Relationship, Dr. John Gottman can say conclusively that being the voice of reason is not always the best approach. Let others play that role. Yours is to let the person you love know that you’re standing with him or her. You get and accept his or her emotions as valid—because all feelings are.

Although you’ve probably been tempted, don’t offer opinions or problem solve until you’ve gone through all four of these steps. Ready advice sounds glib and insulting to many people. Noted psychologist Haim Ginott taught us, “Understanding must precede advice.” In fact, we would go further and warn you not to give advice at all unless asked. Just being there and listening is an enormous contribution.

So that is all there is to the art of intimate conversation. Open up about your own feelings, converse in a style that encourages confidences, and be an ally more than a problem solver. Follow this method in your daily interactioins and you’ll be amazed by how much you discover about each other. Along with enriching your relationship, learning this approach will improve your skills a turning towards each other and prevent a lot of disagreements from ever starting.

Michael Brown is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Gottman Therapist, Couples Workshop Leader, and Clinical Trainer in private practice in Bartram Park. For couples or family therapy or for more information, contact Michael at 904-289-2954 or visit