Intentional Dialogue: True Connection

Easy connection can be yours when you communicate intentionally rather than competitively. Easy connection can be yours when you communicate intentionally rather than competitively.

Everyone wants a safe connection and most are baffled that it’s so difficult to achieve. My previous post, “3 Reasons Typical Couples’ Communication Stinks,” covered just why so many couples feel they aren’t getting through to each other. This post covers a method of talking to each other that satisfies rather than frustrates, leaving you both feeling more connected. Intentional Dialogue is a foundational tool for Mindful Couples. It is a new way to talk and a new way to listen. More than a communication tool, it is a connection process allowing us to experience each other in a nonjudgmental way. When we engage in intentional dialogue, each is genuinely listening and hearing the other. Connection and safety prevail. Intentional dialogue:

  • Prevents misunderstanding
  • Ensures that we hear what our partner says in both words and meaning
  • Helps your partner to feel truly listened to, understood and heard
  • Conveys the attitude that your partner’s thoughts and feelings, just as they are, are worthy of your attention and focus
  • Creates clear and effective communication
  • Helps you open up and become vulnerable with your partner
  • Deepens your understanding of your partner’s point of view and helps you learn to accept your partner the way they are

Intentional Dialogue has three aspects to it: mirroring, validating and empathizing.

Intentional Dialogue Step 1: Mirroring

Mirroring is the process of deeply listening to your partner and accurately reflecting back the content of his or her message. It moves you into a state of being present because you:

  • Suspend judgments and opinions
  • Contain your responses and agenda
  • Refrain from defensiveness
  • Allow your partner to be the center

It is reflecting back what you just heard your partner say. In essence, you mirror back his or her exact words, as accurately as possible. It means repeating back what your partner said without interpreting, distorting, emphasizing, adding or selecting out what is important. It also means reflecting back affect, including the tone and intensity of the sender without mimicking. Initially, it may feel mechanical, slow, awkward and robotic, but it’s like learning to ride a bicycle. Eventually it becomes much more fluid.

Critical Apsect of Mirroring: Asking for an appointment To prepare for a dialogue, the sender or initiator first asks for an appointment and the receiver agrees to participate. The sender or initiator may say, “I’d like to have a dialogue. Is this a good time? Is another time better?”

This considerate step honors the receiver’s boundaries and state of mind at the moment. It also ensures more focused attention from the receiver. Finally, it both respects the partner’s emotional space and prevents you from feeling rejected or deflated by a partner who may not be available right now. The partner being asked responds by agreeing to a dialogue in that moment if possible. However, if your partner asked for an appointment for dialogue when you’re not emotionally available, it is okay to decline, but it’s important to set up a time when you will be available as soon as possible. Now the mirroring begins: The sender speaks his or her message as simply and concisely as possible. It’s important that the sender begin the sentence with “I statements”, “I love”, “I need”, “I feel.” Stay away from blame, shame or criticism. The receiver listens to the sender and then accurately mirrors the message back.

“Let me see if I’ve got you?” “You said….”

As a receiver/listener who is mirroring, you need to suspend your own perspectives, judgments or opinions of your partner temporarily. Be open to hearing your partner’s view of the world without giving your own point of view or evaluating positively or negatively what your partner is saying. Contain contain your own reactions and responses and allow your partner to be the center, temporarily, letting it just be about him or her. The simple act of quieting your mind and not being reactive and “containing” is a profound practice and begins to allow your partner to feel welcome and safe. After mirroring, the receiver checks for accuracy by asking:

“Did I get that?” and “is there more?”

Asking these questions can be profoundly healing to your partner. These questions say something to your partner they may have seldom heard “I have time for you,” “I want to listen,” and “I want to know your thoughts.” When there is no more the receiver gives a “Summary Mirror.” That is, you summarize the key points that your partner just shared. The receiver will say:

“In summary, what I hear you saying is…”

About Overload/The Pause Button If the sending partner “overloads” the receiving partner with too much information, the receiver may have to put the exchange on pause. Receivers get distracted by their own thoughts also. When this happens, a pause may be necessary to re-focus. At this point, the receiver should raise a hand to pause. The sender must respect this and allow the receiver to mirror or repeat what he or she heard and check for accuracy. Continue when both are ready.

Intentional Dialogue Step 2: Validation

“Validation” conveys that the information you are receiving and mirroring “makes sense.” It indicates that you can see your partner’s point of view and can accept its validity. Whether you agree with it or not, it is “true” for your partner. Validation is a temporary suspension or transcendence of your own perspective that allows your partner’s experience to have its own reality. Validation conveys to your partner that you know that their subjective experience is as valid as your own. Validation can be tough. To validate your partner’s message does not mean that you agree with his/her perception or that it reflects your subjective experience. It merely recognizes that in any communication between two people, there are always two views, that no “objective view” is possible and any report of an experience is an “interpretation” which is the “truth” for each person. It enables you to allow two different worlds to coexist safely. The process of mirroring and validation affirms the other person and increases trust and closeness. Validating grows your capacity for empathy and connection. Validating increases trust, closeness, safety, and connection. Typical validating phrases:

“You make sense to me.”

“I follow what you’re saying; you make sense.”

“You make sense to me and what makes sense is…”

Intentional Dialogue Step 3: Empathy

Now that you’ve truly heard your partner’s words and indicated his or her perspective is valid, it’s time to bring emotion into it. Empathy is reflecting or imagining and on some level experiencing the emotions that your partner is sending. Empathy opens your heart to your partner. Where validation is truly hearing the ideas, empathy is feeling the emotions involved in communicating with your partner. It helps your partner feel a deep level of connec
tion and communication. It creates kindness, compassion, safety and vulnerability thus allowing you to experience a genuine connection. You imagine feelings of your partner by momentarily stepping into the experience of your partner to feel his or her pain, anger, fear, appreciation or joy. Feelings generally fall into four categories: mad, sad, glad or scared. If your partner did not mention any emotions you may notice signs of emotion in your partner’s face or body. Very often people describe thoughts and not feelings. For example “you feel that you don’t want to go with me,” that describes a thought not a feeling. It’s amazing how many people confuse thoughts for feelings especially those prone to analyzing or intellectualizing. Our educational system and culture values thinking over feelings. Our culture does not develop emotional intelligence. Empathetic phrases begin with:

“I imagine you might be feeling” or

“I imagine you might have felt”

After you state what you think your partner is feeling, you check it out by asking:

“Is that what you are/were feeling?”

Your partner can verify whether your response is accurate. They may edit or elaborate your guess. In the dialogue we simply mirror their words back to them until they agree that you got it. Often the process of empathizing with your partner’s feelings allows both of you to experience a genuine connection. Such experiences can be powerful. Another empathetic phrase is:

“Given what you said about your loss, I imagine you might be feeling scared. Is that what you’re feeling?”

By empathizing and participating in the feelings that your partner is experiencing about the event or the situation they are discussing, you deepen the level of communication and transcend your separateness.

Appreciation Dialogue Example Appreciation Dialogue is a form of Intentional Dialogue. I like to use it as an example because it quickly conveys how good the feelings that spring from true, active listening can be.

  • Sender says: “One specfic thing you did this week that I appreciate is…”
  • Receiver mirrors saying, “So this week you appreciated that I…”
  • Sender says: “What’s so significant to me about that is…”
  • Receiver mirrors saying, “My action was so important to you because… and seeing that in you helped me feel…”
  • Receiver validates: “I see what you’re saying…”
  • Receiver empathizes: “I bet you were feeling…”
  • Receiver then adds, “What touched me about what you just shared is… Thank you for sharing”
  • Sender says,“Thank you for listening.”

Practice Makes Perfect! Practicing in Couples Counseling Can Be Smart

Insights from an outside expert can get you and your partner past what seem insurmountable differences. I’ve seen lots of couples come back from the brink of divorce and put daily joy back into their relationship. While I offer couples’ relationship workshops throughout the year, private counseling provides the most tailored and fast-acting approach.