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When you experience conflict with your partners, it can be difficult to understand their perspective, leading to viewing them as adversaries rather than allies. This might prevent you from communicating constructively with your partner and taking action to solve this particular problem. Without any solution, this problem might become perpetual between you and your partner, and its causes will unfold over time. To address this issue, John and Julie Gottman created The Gottman-Rapoport Intervention by utilizing Anatol Rapoport’s work on international conflict during the Cold War. The intervention emphasizes resolving conflicts through understanding, cooperation, and persuasion. Partners should manage the conflict by having each person understand their partner’s perspective. In this therapy sketch, we will discuss one of the interventions from Gottman Couples Therapy, The Gottman-Rapoport intervention, and how to utilize it during conflict. 

What is a “Conflict” between partners?

We can experience “conflict” in many contexts, whether job or social life-related. However, how we define it while we have a conflict with our partner changes our point of view in the first place. You don’t have to argue or fight with your partner to experience a conflict actively. From Gotman’s perspective, conflicts arise from differences in needs, emotions, values, and perspectives between partners. Conflicts can involve many topics, ranging from daily tasks to deeper emotional and relational issues. It is easy to detect deeper emotional and relational issues as a conflict. Still, simple arguments about what to watch on TV on a continuous basis can involve conflict, depending on the situation. Conflicts include multiple elements to deal with, such as disagreements, emotional disconnection, miscommunication, underlying unresolved issues, and power struggles. According to John and Julie Gotmann, conflicts are inevitable within the relationship. However, how you and your partner will handle it is a predictor of a sound relationship. It may not be easy to manage conflict between you and your partner, especially when the conflict involves loaded emotions(generally negative) and can be covered up or mismanaged by either or both parties. To ensure that conflict management can be effectively addressed by couples,  Julie and John Gottman developed “The Gottman Rapoport Intervention.” 

The Goals of Gottman Rapoport Intervention

Rapoport developed interventions during the Cold War so that countries could listen and constructively talk to one another. Paul Watzlawick presented Rapoport’s ideas to John Gottman, which were developed under “The Gottman Rapoport Intervention” in the context of couples therapy. This intervention is based on maximizing cooperation while minimizing the threat and negativity between you and your partner. To do that, Gotmanns highlights two sub-goals:

  1. There are different perspectives, but both are valid: Imagine that two people look at the same event from different angles; they probably perceive the event differently. This difference in perception often leads to conflicts between couples, as partners perceive the same event from different perspectives. Therefore, there are usually two realities for both parties. Yet neither one reality is right, and the other is wrong. This intervention aims for the partners to realize that there can be two realities. 
  2. Understood your partner on an emotional level: The word “understanding” can sound like comprehending one on a cognitive level. However, understanding your partner only on a cognitive level might lead you to miss the bigger picture. To understand your partner emotionally and let them know that they heard, you must listen actively and delay the problem-solving part until your partner has expressed their position to you. The delay is only until your partner is heard; you will get your turn afterward.

The goal of Gottman Rapoport Intervention is to discuss a topic you and your partner feel is understood. Before you can engage in persuasion and move toward compromise or problem-solving in case of conflicts, you and your partner need to agree that there are two valid perceptions of every situation. With this in mind, you and your partner approach this from a “curious and interested in knowing more” frame of mind to guide an open and transparent conversation with each other.

Assumption of Similarity

According to Rapoport’s original work, one tends to see that one’s adversary’s background, characteristics, and qualities are different from one’s own and that one’s own qualities are more favorable during the conflict. Couples often tend to transfer all the negative thoughts to the other side during a conflict and to see the better side in themselves. The Gotmann Rapoport Intervention presents the assumption of similarity to address how you’re reflecting and projecting onto your partner during the conflict. Suppose you find yourself attributing the best quality or behavior to yourself and the worst to your partner. In that case, you can utilize the assumption of similarity to see a more grounded point of view for you and your partner:  

  • When you have a trait that you think is positive about yourself, try to recognize it in your partner.
  • When you think that your partner has a negative trait and that it causes problems, ask yourself if you have this trait, too. 

How to utilize Gottman Rapoport Intervention? 

The Gottman Rapoport intervention aims to resolve the conflict by listening to each other’s needs and feelings. To do that, you and your partner play the roles of speaker and listener. The speaker’s job is to express needs and feelings without criticizing or blaming. While you are the speaker, be careful that you are using “I” statements rather than “you,” do not blame, criticize, or express contempt toward the listener, and start the conversation with “a positive need.” A positive need is to rephrase your need for your partner in a way that sounds like a wish rather than an attack. The role of the listener during this time is to listen to your partner and ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of your partner’s point of view while your partner is the speaker. 

To utilize intervention, you and your partner need to decide the roles first. After deciding who would like to be the speaker and who would like to be the listener, you and your partner need to ensure that both of you have the opportunity to express your point of view and experience both the speaker and the listener roles; it’s crucial that only one speaker is present at a time. It’s helpful to follow the four steps below to guide you in this process.

  1. Prepare yourself: The first step is actively listening to your partner for their perspectives. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with them, it is important that you make an effort to understand your partner’s world from their point of view. You might feel like you want to express your point of view while your partner is sharing; however, remembering that you will have the chance to be a speaker might help you delay your agenda without taking away your partner’s time as a speaker. 
  1. Attune: While your partner expresses a point of view, needs, or feelings, your goal is to understand your partner’s needs and feelings without judgment. Even though your partner is the speaker, you might not get into your partner’s world without asking questions. Asking open-ended questions will help you comprehend your partner’s needs. Asking open-ended questions provides deeper information about the topic. Closed-ended questions like “Are you serious? Is this what you are thinking?” might sound like criticism and provide no information. Defensive responses like “You didn’t do this or that too for me,” or responses that imply minimizing your feelings, “You are overreacting,” or body language that reveals contempt (e.g., rolling eyes) will prevent the conversation from getting away on track. While listening actively and emphatically, it is important to remember that it is not your responsibility to make your partner feel better.
  1. Summarize and Reflect on what you hear: Taking notes while you are listening to your partner’s expression might be beneficial to remember what you heard and reflect it back to your partner. Listening actively and emphatically without diving into your own perspective will take more energy than you might have anticipated. Writing might help you organize what you hear without missing your partner’s expressions. The trick here is to reflecting partner’s needs and feelings in your own words and summarize them to show you are on the same page. This will allow you to clarify and handle misunderstandings in a supportive rather than demeaning way.
  1. Validate and communicate understanding and empathy: While validation might sound like you need to agree with your partner, using it while you are listening is actually more related to showing that you understand your partner. Responses like “I can see your point” make your partner feel understood by providing positive affect. 

After completing four steps, you need to ask your partner if they feel understood. If they do, it is time to switch roles. Even after successfully compiling four steps, it is possible for your partner to feel not understood. Getting feedback by asking, “Is there anything you would like me to tell or what I need to know to understand better?” and reviewing the summarization and reflection will help ensure no missing points.

Building love and trust involves really listening to your partner, which is easier said than done. So often, you may feel like you need to jump to solutions, try to fix them, or just brush things under the rug because that’s the simpler option. However, trying to understand your partner can create pathways for more effective communication. To do that, using the Gotman-Rapoport intervention might support you and your partner in seeing them as someone you can work with rather than against.

While our physical offices are located in South Loop and Lakeview neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois for in-person sessions, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more.  

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.