Calling the Play by Play: A Strategy for Improving Marital Communication

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Posted: March 12, 2024

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

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This question is for the sports fans out there:  have you ever had to settle for listening to the game on the radio rather than getting to watch the action on the big screen?  Though watching the game on TV can be exciting, for me, there is something about hearing every moment called out in real time that adds to the level of excitement.   It requires a different level of focus, which often highlights details that you might miss otherwise.  There is something about naming every movement that requires us to stay in the moment, forcing us to forget about the last play that went wrong or what might happen next.   Calling the play-by-play requires a level of presence that can enhance the overall experience, and when applied to marriage, it serves as a game changer in navigating difficult conversations.  

What is Calling the Play-by-Play?

Simply put, calling the play-by-play is an intentional way to slow down communication and clearly articulate our emotions. To do this,  we must be able to zero in on what we are feeling rather than what our spouse is doing. Calling the play-by-play might seem difficult when things are tense, but this technique can be practiced by working on two key skills: verbalizing our emotions and remaining in the present.  

Skill 1: Verbalizing our emotions   

For the play-by-play to be effective, it isn’t enough to simply know what we are feeling; we have to say it out loud!  That’s right, it can’t just stay in our head; we must tell our spouses what we are feeling.  It would be nice if they could read the coverage and know exactly what we are thinking, but unfortunately, it rarely works like that.  Our willingness to verbalize our emotions relieves our spouse from the pressure of doing the guess work.  When we focus on verbalizing the elements we can control (what is happening within us) it leaves little room for assumptions.  I think we can all agree that making assumptions about our spouse’s emotions is one of the most reliable ways to escalate a conflict.       

Skill 2: Remaining in the present

In addition to verbalizing our emotions, calling the play-by-play requires a commitment to remaining in the present. Often, when emotions are high, we revert to past experiences rather than dealing with the challenge right in front of us. Fixating on past conflicts inhibits our ability to clearly see the present situation.  When this is our mindset, we tend to react to past hurts rather than present realities. Remaining in the present affords the opportunity to create new patterns of communication that lead to resolving conflict.      


Putting the Play-By-Play into Action

So, what does it look like to put the play-by-play into action?  Instead of saying, “You’re so lazy! You never do anything around the house,” try, “I am feeling overwhelmed. Would you be able to help me?”  In this example, we shift from the blame game to naming the present emotion and current need.  This adjustment leaves less room for defensiveness and provides clarity about what we need from our spouse in the present. As you practice the play-by-play, you will continue to improve your ability to communicate with depth and clarity. Rather than stopping at “I am feeling overwhelmed. Would you be able to help me?” You might soon find yourself saying “I am feeling alone and I would like to feel loved and appreciated.” This deeper level of communication will empower you and your spouse to move beyond the content of the conflict and connect with one another’s hearts.

If you are anything like me, you might be thinking that the play-by-play sounds a lot easier than it really is, and you would be right; old patterns can be difficult to break. However, with intentional practice and repetition, you and your spouse can implement a new game plan that will enhance your communication and lead to a clearer understanding of one another’s needs.   For those of you who are eager to master this strategy, recruiting a great coach could be just what you need.  Our Marriage Coaching and  Counseling services are here to assist you and your spouse as you work towards improving your communication.  We would be happy to join your team!

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This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

About the Author
Greg Cooney
Greg Cooney

Greg Cooney MA, LPC has a Master’s in Professional Counseling from Liberty University. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor, holding licensure in Illinois.

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