In order for us to have open and honest communication about difficult topics, we cannot go with our gut reactions.
Imago Relational Therapy, teaches us a technique called the Couples Dialog which helps us communicate with our partners when talking about emotionally charged issues.
The Couples Dialog cannot be taken lightly, but rather as a process that must be followed to the letter. So, first, both of you have to be willing and ready for it and should agree in advance on the time and place for the talk. You must also agree to limit the topic to the issue that is coming up at this time, and not go back and rehash the past with blame and anger.
When using the Couples Dialog, if its you who is the one attempting to listen to your partner speaking about what is upsetting, try to follow these four prime rules for successful communication:
- Let your partner speak without interruption. It’s rare to have the experience of being listened to with total interest and concentration and it feels great and freeing. When you as the listener respond only with encouraging remarks like ‘tell me more’ or ‘what else?’ it’s easier for your partner to be totally open.
- Show your partner you understand by reflecting back the essence of what was said. This is a matter of listening intently and then, at appropriate times, interjecting something like ‘so you’re saying that…’ or ‘if I understand right, you said…’ followed by a summary of the emotions expressed. Once your partner agrees that you understood, you ask for more. If you didn’t understand, ask for a repeat and try again to reflect back correctly until you do get it accurately and completely.
- Be empathetic and communicate that empathy. If the relationship is going to include ongoing intimate communication, there must be a reward for your partner being brave enough to expose those private feelings. The greatest reward is to finally feel heard and understood.
- Validation. Let your partner know that, from his or her point of view, it’s not crazy to feel that way.
When your partner has gotten it all out, you can say things like "thank you for telling me all this; that wasn't so easy to hear but I'm glad to know what you're feeling and I'll think about all this." A pat on the arm or a look in each other's eyes can confirm that you're taking all this seriously. This completes your side of the Couples Dialog.
Listening with containment and discipline like this brings great benefits but it isn't easy since we all have the urge to present our own side, be defensive, or show our partner how he or she isn't thinking clearly.
With all its challenges, however, being a successful listener is easier than being a successful speaker. Next time, we'll talk about Dialog skills for the speaker.