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One couple credits this 5-step exercise with teaching them how to communicate

Denisa Cerna said her boyfriend’s 5-step exercise helped them understand each other and learn to communicate better. Here’s how it works.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper: Taking a few minutes to write out problems and solutions can have a huge impact on your relationship.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper: Taking a few minutes to write out problems and solutions can have a huge impact on your relationship.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

He had trouble adjusting to new situations, she didn’t feel appreciated, but neither understood how the other felt.

University of Glasgow student and freelance writer, Denisa Cerna, 21, says she learned to better understand her long-distance boyfriend through a simple five-step exercise.

It all started during a recent visit with her boyfriend, who lives in the United Kingdom. Cerna, who has been studying abroad in Germany, said the distance had created misunderstanding in the relationship.

“There were so many problems all of a sudden, and we didn't quite know how to cope with that because everything was fine for most of our relationship,” she said. “And that's basically when he introduced me to this exercise that he came up with.”

Cerna said her boyfriend’s simple five-step exercise helped them understand each other. Here’s how it works:

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1) Grab different colored pens and write down what is bothering you.

On a piece of paper, take turns writing down what’s bothering you.

“I think that the most essential thing about this exercise is that there can be no judgment,” said Cerna. “Like, if your partner writes something down, instead of automatically defending yourself or getting angry, you just accept that that's how they feel.”

Cerna and her boyfriend took turns writing down what was troubling them. She wrote down that she felt like he didn’t seem excited to be with her, and he wrote that he found it difficult to predict and understand her moods, she said.

“I think that for both of us, this wasn't that much of a surprise, because when it comes to him predicting or understanding my moods, it was quite hard for me myself to predict or understand them, so I completely agreed with him on that point,” she said. “And when it comes to the reassurance for me, we both know that sometimes he withdraws a little bit, and that's when it kind of triggers me and I want to be more reassured in the relationship.”

2) Swap papers and summarize your partner's problems in your own words.

During this step, each of you reads what the other wrote down. On the back of the sheet or on a separate piece of paper, you each summarize what the other wrote. This step will force you to see the situation through the other’s eyes, said Cerna.

After this step, Cerna says she realized that her boyfriend had gotten used to being alone and having his own routine, and was having trouble getting used to new situations that come with being a couple.

“It was quite difficult for him to adjust to the fact that I was now in the picture, that he would kind of have to take me into consideration and be more active with me, and I think the fact that he shared that with me, and he wrote it down, meant that I could have more empathy for that, instead of feeling hurt or offended by him,” she said.

3) Correct your summary if they didn't get it quite right.

Take turns reading your summaries. If your partner’s summary is off, write a correction. Remember not to get angry or judgmental, Cerna said.

“It's fine if they misunderstood you, because this exercise serves as a tool to understand each other better, and basically, you correct them to make the picture clearer for them,” she said. “You either correct them, or adjust the statement a little bit so that they have a better perspective or a better understanding, or you add something to it.”

For example, in Cerna’s summary of her boyfriend’s feelings, she wrote that he finds it difficult to predict her moods.

“He added the word ‘needs,’ because that was important for him — that the word ‘need’ is there — because he wants to know what I need so he can give it to me, and I wasn't clear on that,” she explained.

4) Now that you understand your problems, write down solutions.

During this step, each partner writes down solutions, then reviews them. If you agree with your partner’s solution, put a check mark next to it. If you disagree, mark it with an X, and write down a new solution. Keep repeating the process until you come up with solutions you both agree on.

“What you really need is to find solutions, and that’s the crucial part, because otherwise you just have four pages of problems that have no solutions to them,” she said.

For example, Cerna realized she needed to talk to her boyfriend about his behavior instead of making assumptions. “I wrote down, ‘I tell you about the small stupid things, so you can explain, and so I don't make assumptions,’” she said. She added: “He wrote down that I would get more of his full attention.”

5) Review the list on a regular basis.

It’s easy for couples to fall back to their old ways, Cerna said. To avoid this, she said couples need to meet at least once a day to go over what was agreed to and make sure they're sticking with their goals.

“You show each other that you make each other a priority, and you make the relationship a priority,” she said.

She recommended going over the solutions you agreed on in the morning, then meet again in the evening to discuss progress. “If it goes well, then great,” she said, “and if there's something that bothers you in the day, this little space in the evening gives you room to bring this issue up and talk about it peacefully.”

Don’t forget you’re only human

Cerna said the exercise improved their relationship because it helped them communicate honestly and openly. “Now we understand each other better, and we understand how we work and what the other one needs,” she said.

It’s OK if you go off track, she added.

“If you both end up, for example, breaking some of the solutions, don't forget that you're only human,” she said. “And it's important to forgive each other for making some slip ups and making mistakes, as long as you both keep trying, and you keep focusing on making it work.”