The “Sacred Space” Rules of Communication

Photo by Claire Wilkinson 2008 CC-BY
Photo by Claire Wilkinson 2008 CC-BY

When I work with couples who are in a bad spot, I find almost always, that most of their problems in their marriage either are caused

by or made a lot worse by poor communication.  While being able to talk to each other isn’t a silver bullet for every marital conflict, it is almost always the first step.

Often, however, if people are coming to me, or one of my colleagues on the MAP team about this, then they are in need of help right now! Bad communication habits can’t be cured overnight, they require work, so how does one help two people talk about their differences before their marriage hits critical mass, when they can barely say a civil word to one another?

Well, ideally they would have a professional, like a marriage counsellor, a coach, or a mediator on hand to guide them through the process.  Barring that, it helps to have a clear set of rules and tools to work with.  About a year ago, I developed a tool I call the “Sacred Space” tool for communication.


The Sacred Space Communication Tool


First, Select a Space: An area where the two of you can talk about your problems.  Whenever you need to have a serious discussion you need to retreat to that space before talking.  This will help condition your mind to using the other tools while you are in there.  It also will both make sure you take the process seriously, and let you leave any hurt feelings or frustrations behind when you exit that space.

This space absolutely should not be your bedroom, dining room, or living room.  If you have a space where you have heavy, sometimes unpleasant communication regularly, it makes it hard to do anything else in that space without being reminded of those feelings.  You bedroom should be for sleep, sensuality, and sex only.  Your dining room needs to be for feasting and togetherness, not division.  Your living room is your ordinary space, leave it as such.  This space should not be one where you are likely to argue in front of children.

If you have a small home where there are few other options, an outdoor space like your yard or balcony might work.  In a pinch, you can choose a cafe, but this is less advisable – make sure it is not one you go to otherwise.

I find garages, laundry rooms, basements, guest rooms, or home offices to be ideal.

Make the Space Feels Safe: If possible lighten the mood of the environment.  Make sure it is in a light, soothing colour like a pale yellow, light blue, or soft green.  Put up images, artwork and decorations that you find calming and soothing.  If your space is outdoor, consider something like soft wind chimes, or planting some flowers.

Make chairs, mats, or cushions available in the space so that you can sit facing each other when the discussion begins.

Agree to Use the Space: From here on in, you will use the space for your place to discuss stressful topics and resolve arguments.  You have to both agree that if there is an argument or a highly stressful topic you need to discuss, that you will hold off on talking about it immediately, and make an appointment to go to your space.  Just doing that can diffuse emotions that are running high, and keep anger from disrupting your time together.

Select a Talking Totem: Aside from agreeing to use the space, you must also agree to choose an object to use as a talking totem.  A stick, a figurine, a ball, anything will work, although it helps if it is something bright and colourful.

Agree to Use the Totem: Just like the space itself, you need to agree to use the totem.  The most effective rules regarding the totem are this:  when you need to speak, you must pick up the totem.  No one else inside the space may speak except when they are holding the totem.

The person who asked for you both to go to the space must pick up the totem first.

When your partner is holding the totem, you must Listen to them, not think about what you want to say back.  Be patient, you will be given time to think.

When you are done talking, and ready to hear a response, put the totem down between you.  Then you must wait until the other person has picked it up at least once before speaking again.  If you want a moment or need to pause, it is okay to hold the totem for a bit in silence.  But if you cannot think of anything else to say, try not to hold it for more than a couple of minutes.

When you pick up the ball to respond to something another has said, you must state what you heard them say in your own words before they continue, and ask them to confirm this is true or false with a nod or shake of their head.  If you did not understand correctly, the best thing to do is to put the totem back down so they may try to explain themselves better.

Post* and Agree to the Following Rules While you are in the Space:

  • There is no growling, screaming, or stare-downs allowed in this space.
  • There are no accusations, false tears, or threats made in this space.
  • Everyone has a right to their feelings, you may not tell anyone how to feel in this space.
  • If you must argue in this space, you may only argue about facts.
  • You must be sober and awake in order to enter and use this space.
  • You must hug each other before leaving this space.
  • If you cannot hug yet, you must wait until you are ready to hug before leaving.

*If you cannot post these rules, then print them out or write them down and take them with you to your space when you need to use it.

If You Break the Rules: There is no punishment, but you must stop and apologize after doing so.

Understand how Difficult these Rules Are:  These are actually pretty hard rules to follow, and you should feel free to pause and review.  It is okay to say “I don’t know how to express myself and follow the rules at the same time.”  If that’s the case, the other person can give permission for you to say what you need anyway, or ask you to wait… and you should respect that.

Post these Reminders: These are not rules, they are reminders, but having them visible to you in large print will help you communicate even better:

  • No one can read minds:  If you want others to know something, you must say it.
  • No one can read minds:  Ask someone how they think or feel, don’t guess.
  • If you can start a sentence with “I” instead of “You” you are speaking wisely.
  • The person in the chair across from you loves you.

I have seen this tool work wonders for couples in troubled waters.

If You Can’t Resolve Things Immediately: Because you need time to think, say so.  Make a date to return to this room when you have had time to process.  And if your partner asks to do the same, agree to it:  you will accomplish nothing forcing each other to stay in the room.  But when you make that date, you must stick to it.

©2013 Brian C. Rideout

4 thoughts on “The “Sacred Space” Rules of Communication

  1. Great post, Brian. I really love this system. We have to use our bedroom because of having 5 kids in a smallish house. But we’ve separated a seating area from the main bedroom.

    Question for maybe a follow up post.

    When one partner consistently breaks the rules ie using profanity, raising their voice, what’s the best way to handle it?

    1. The context is slightly different but I have seen this sort of thing when one partner uses the old assertiveness training “broken record” technique, and just keeps repeating the same thing at the other partner over and over and over again. Finally that partner snaps and screams/swears. Because actually partner #1 isn’t listening. No matter what the other partner says, they repeat the same thing. they’re not interested in their partner’s position, just having their say or getting their way. But because partner #2 swears or screams, partner #1 feels they have the moral high ground.

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