Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, introduced a very clean and effective way for couples to communicate via the “intentional dialouge”. This is one of the first things I introduce in couples therapy. The structure of the dialogue looks like this:
Mirroring – Partner A (aka the “sender” because they are sending information to their partner) talks about a frustration, complaint or something that is heavy on their heart. Partner B (aka as the “receiver” or the “listener” because they are receiving information from partner A) then mirrors back what they understood partner A to be sharing. They may paraphrase or summarize, however it is critical that when partner B is mirroring, they are mindful that they are not twisting partner A’s message, or projecting, or correcting, etc. If partner B starts the mirror with the below sentence stems, they are often in better shape to be clearly mirroring versus twisting or projecting:
- “What I hear you saying is . . . “
- “What I understand you to say is . . . “
- “If I am getting you right, you are saying . . . “
Validation – Once partner A feels heard by partner B (and they will know they are being heard because partner B is mirroring back to them what they are hearing), then partner B does his very best to convey to partner A that they make sense, given partner A‘s experience, reality, personality, conditioning, etc. Validation does not equal agreement! It simply means that we can see how and why partner A sees or experiences things as they do. I think this is the most challenging piece of the dialogue process, and I will often spend lots of time helping partner B to really get what partner A is saying and why it makes sense to them. Oftentimes, but not always, this also requires partner B to take some ownership in the dynamic or situation being discussed.
Empathy – After partner B has successfully validated partner A, I will then ask partner B to imagine what partner A may be feeling in relation to the topic being discussed. In most instances, partner A is going to have already shared how they are or were feeling. I ask partner B to simply reflect that back and make some guesses about other feelings that partner A may have. This last piece of the dialogue is meant to be short and meaningful to both partners in that partner A‘s feelings are being deeply understood by partner B, and partner B is deeply attuning to the feelings of their partner. Very powerful stuff.
The structure of intentional dialogue is simple, yet complex. As with any new skill, it takes some coaching and practice. My experience with couples in my offices is that once they buy in and start to master the dialogue, their communication improves dramatically, setting them up to have much better odds of staying connected and solving their problems.
Stay tuned for our next blog series . . . until then, peace.