Relationship Communication Blocked? Play the Brainstorming Game

man and woman writing down ideasDo you and your partner ever feel that you’re stuck, getting nowhere with an issue? That there are too many sacred cows, taboos, and unsaid thoughts? Or the same flawed ideas are churned over again and again with no result, leaving you desperate, hopeless, and mired in a communication breakdown?

We live much of our days in a state of planning, projecting, corner-casing, and if-then thinking. The logic tree has many branches. This sort of thinking makes us good at solving discrete problems, re-engineering the way we maintain the car, house, or projects at work. But what about when we really need to get out of what’s familiar and bring a fresh perspective to something? How can we bring a “beginner’s mind” to something that is not working in our lives or relationships?

This is an ideal time for using brainstorming communication techniques with your partner. You may wonder how this is any different from a typical conversation. Well, there are guidelines—you will be specific and focus on only one problem, there will be no wrong answers and no editing of each others’ suggestions, and you will write down all answers tendered (preferably somewhere all can see, such as a whiteboard, sticky notes, or a shared piece of paper). Also, the process should continue until you and your partner or teammate have generated at least 10 possible solutions to the issue you’re taking on. You are going for quantity, not quality.

For example, rather than “How are we ever going to balance time with our relatives?” the question becomes “In how many ways can we balance time with our relatives?” Now you are entering the twilight zone, where you are free to generate crazy, wishful, and heretofore “impractical” ideas. For example:

  • We put their names in a hat and draw them in order of priority.
  • Disown half of them and focus on the rest (just kidding …).
  • We divide our vacation into quarters and travel to four cities.
  • Rotate by year and occasion for visits.
  • Make a drawing, like “secret Santa,” and rotate which relative we’re each responsible for connecting with.
  • Invite everyone to our place and let them decide.
  • Figure out the best method for each (letter, call, visit) and focus our efforts by method.
  • Create clones and send them as ambassadors on our behalf.
  • Focus on quality of closeness/connection and forget about divvying up time equally.
  • Write an annual letter, and whoever responds gets a visit.

As you read this, did other ideas come to mind? The season for family holidays is coming up; the example above may give you and your partner some ideas. If the above list pertains, you are welcome to go back through and objectively discuss what you think is workable and appropriate.

Here’s the kicker: After all that creative momentum and follow-up discussion, pick one solution and do it! Each of you can offer one step that you will take in the next one to two weeks to pursue the chosen solution. Set a date to check in on your progress. Then repeat with a new solution or step. Try this out and see how sticky problems get unstuck—one creative idea and one helpful step at a time.

Consider bringing in a facilitator or neutral third party if you find that you and your partner or teammate need more support to feel you will not be shut down, criticized, or otherwise discouraged from sharing your ideas by your partner. This technique works well in couples counseling; a moderator can help to keep the discussion on track.

What helps you get into a creative zone? What do you think about building on your partner’s ideas? How can you notice and reward each other’s progress on this issue? Please share your questions and comments below.


  1. iSixSigma. Brainstorming Rules. Retrieved 9/24/2013 at
  2. San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Brain Exchange. Guidelines for Creative Brainstorming. Retrieved 9/24/2013 at
  3. The Ten Steps for Resolving Conflict by Dr. David Olson and Prepare-Enrich. Retrieved 9/24/2013 at

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Melinda Douglass, PsyD, Communication Problems Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gracie h

    October 9th, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    We never argue throughout the whole year quite the same way that we do at the holidays. Rather sad, huh? This is the time of year that should bring all of the love and the happiness and yet for us it is what brings about all of the meanness and the arguing! It becomes this competitive thing with who gets to spend more time with whom or who gets to have mroe relatives over than the other. I swear every year that this year will be different and then I find myself getting sucked inall over again. I really think that the holidays just bring out the worst in me and then when my nails come out so do his and aarrgghh! It just brings out the worst in both of us I guess, who is going to one up the other and then we pretty much don’t speak from Thanksgiving until New Years. Maybe with this as our guide this year can be a little different than years past

  • Gary

    October 9th, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    Such a safe and creative approach. I really appreciate the collaborative spirit.

  • Catkaren

    October 9th, 2013 at 3:14 PM

    I think that the upswing is that if you spend all this time as focused and creative as this then you are naturally going to find that the barriers to communication that you may have been putting up all of those years will naturally fall away. That’s my hope anyway.

  • margaret

    October 9th, 2013 at 9:24 PM

    Nice approach to dismantling roadblocks that get created when we can’t always be as vulnerable as we’d like to be with our loved ones – thanks!

  • nina

    October 10th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    Like the idea of just forgetting about being “equal” and thinking about the people that you honestly want to spend that time with. In my case this might not actually even be relatives but friends who are more like family to me, and I think that this is ok too if you have been welcomed into their homes. Family is whoever makes you feel the most comfortable and the warmest about being together, and it shouldn;t be cause to fight and add more stress.

  • bruce k

    October 15th, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    Communication like this could really facilitate getting the ball rolling in a whole new direction for you and your relationship. I think that there are a lot of couples who stop talking and communicatio=ng because well, life just sort of gets in the way and after a while the relationship very much becomes an afterthought and they no longer remember the things that they need to do to nurture and grow that relationship. I think that for most couples though once they get back into the swing of things with an activity like this they can pick right back up where they left off and find that they have really missed this kind of interaction with each other.

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