Many of the couples we work with have concerns over their communication patterns. They report feeling unheard, misunderstood, and lost in how to resolve their most common arguments. For these couples we find this Parallel Processing exercise very beneficial. This exercise allows each individual to process their own thoughts, feelings and reactions before coming together and discussing as a couple.

We have found this exercise to be especially beneficial for those of us that need more time to gather our thoughts and can be particularly useful for neurodivergent couples.

4-Step Parallel Processing Exercise:
1. Pick a topic or situation that you’d like to discuss or work through

We often suggest choosing a topic of relatively low emotional value at first. Think of a 4 out of 10 stress topic, with 10 being the most stressful topic ever. 

2. Take 10-20 minutes to independently process the topic

Each of you write down your individual thoughts, emotions, concerns and reflections. Try to be as honest and open with yourself as possible during this stage. We often find this is a nice time to jot down a few ideas of what you might need to solve this conflict if any come to mind.

3. Discuss

At this step, take turns as both the speaker and listener. The goal of the discussion stage is to stay focused on the topic and have a constructive conversation in which both people feel understood.

a. Speaker’s Job: to use your notes and express your thoughts, emotions and concerns as clearly as possible. Remember this is your opportunity to share how this topic truly impacts you so try to be as honest as you can.

b. Listener’s Job: to engage active listening skills and ensure that the speaker feels heard and understood. Some tips here include:

  • Listening without interruption.
  • Reflecting and summarizing back your understanding to make sure and potential misunderstandings are clarified.
  • Validating your partner’s experience even if you have differing viewpoints.
  • Empathizing with your partner’s feelings and using emotion words.
  • If the speaker it begins to seem like you are talking in circles a great question to ask is: “what is the most important thing you need me to understand about this topic?
4. Collaborative problem solving

In this stage we are working together to find a new way of moving forward about this topic. Based on the information shared by each partner, work together and find ways to address the challenges constructively. Here’s a nice outline that works well for many couples:

    • Each person label one thing that they are doing that is not helping to resolve the problem.
    • List out things that you have both done to try and solve the problem that did not work.
    • Think about different ideas to solve the problem and make a list. Alternate between each other, providing one idea at a time.
    • Discuss each potential solution and work together to rank each idea from best to least likely to solve the issue.
    • Choose a solution that both partners agree to try – remember this is an experiment! If this solution does not work, now you have a list of other potential options to come back to!
    • Choose a time in the future to reconnect about this problem and how the solution is working or not.

    Parallel processing allows individuals to process their thoughts without the pressure of providing an immediate response. This activity fosters deeper self-awareness and gives couples the chance to approach discussions with greater clarity and understanding. As you practice this skill you can slowly begin choosing more difficult topics. The first few times you practice might feel silly but choosing the easy topics is the best way to build the foundation for down the road!

    Written by: Tiffany Smith, Registered Provisional Psychologist
    Map Psychology Solutions
    [email protected]
    (587) 330-2999

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