Communication 101: The Couple’s Dialogue

            In past blogs (here for example) I have written about the importance of empathy and deep listening. However, I recognize that these skills, which come intuitively to some, are actually not that easy for many of us. To be honest, I had to learn them as an adult and very much at the expense of a very intuitive partner who could not understand why I was so clueless. Fortunately for you and for me, dear reader, I do not have to come up with a way to teach empathy and deep listening because this has already been done. David Silberstein invented the Couple’s Dialogue, which details instructions for engaging in conversations likely to elicit deep empathy and genuine, focused listening. I will list the steps in the method here and talk a little bit about some of the hang-ups you might encounter using this tool as well as the many benefits of sticking with the (at times very awkward) process.

            Most of my clients in romantic relationships, whether they are monogamous or polyamorous, come into therapy because communication is a problem. There may be other problems underneath that one. However, without good communication none of the other problems can be addressed. Communication is vital to the health of relationships. Yet, there are many reasons most of us are built to fail at it. I’d like to discuss a few of those before I move into the Couple’s Dialogue.

We are not taught how to really listen. Here in California anyway, we are at the bleeding edge of the Western project of individualism. Most of us have either been encouraged to or run away to “be ourselves” or “find ourselves” or “love ourselves.” There is an emphasis on speaking one’s truth and knowing one’s self. There is a value in knowing and marketing (personally and professionally) one’s uniqueness. These are fine goals. I heartily support them. Yet, the result in communication is a difficulty in putting down the self long enough to really open to what the other is saying. Ironically and sadly, our individualism also creates in many a desperate desire to be witnessed, and being heard is a big part of that need.

In some folks poor listening is a caricature, and you can practically see their wheels turning when they are “listening” to you, so eager to say what they are thinking. Yet, there is almost certain to be some part of the listener (myself included) wrapped up in what the speech of the other means to them, how they can relate it to their own life. The worst of individualistic banter can readily become about one-upping, a game you can find in any academic setting. You are in these cases listening only to conquer, to say something more clever, more cutting, more insightful, whatever. This is particularly poisonous in romantic relationships, because what is to be won in vanquishing the one you love? Nothing, and both parties feel hurt by this kind of verbal competitiveness, even the “winner.”

The goal is not to stop thinking about how things relate to you completely. That is also an important part of the communication process. Yet, the benefits of slowing it down, giving separate space for listening and evaluating are immense. I believe this is the best way for both parties to feel witnessed and heard, and why the couple’s dialogue is such a wonderful tool.

We are not taught how to recognize nonverbal communication. This is such a huge loss, and in a way a form of discrimination. There are so many who struggle with words - introverts, people with hearing impairments, people with speech impediments, people with significant developmental trauma, and too many others to name. Much of what they communicate is nonverbal. I have seen couple’s in which one is constantly upset by the other’s lack of communication/emotional withdrawal, when that other is an introvert who is constantly and clearly expressing their love nonverbally. What a person does matters at least as much as what they say. Body language, showing up, physical closeness, loyalty, and material contributions are all means of communication, and just a few of the many forms nonverbal communication takes. The Couple’s Dialogue doesn’t really speak to this issue, but it is an important one for me. There is such a preference for eloquence and extroversion in our society (again California really can take these preferences to extremes) that many are left feeling unseen in all of their efforts to connect, which are often tender and sincere in a touching way that surpasses words. Please look at how you may have been ignoring your own nonverbal signals as well as those of your partner(s).

We have not been taught to value difference, or even really acknowledge it. In my opinion this is one of the greatest flaws of our current paradigm. As anyone who has ever taken an intro biology course learns, biodiversity is the measure of a healthy landscape. Nature creates diversity and webs of interdependence between wildly different forms everywhere. Yet somehow we as humans we have failed to value or accept this brilliant architecture of variety. “Normal” as a construct was created not that long ago (check this out) because it served industrial Capitalism, which needed cogs. In the time since, we have learned to take for granted that we are all about the same inside, which is a very strange idea and quite dissonant with the truth we experience so starkly in our close relationships. This assumption that we think and feel about the same is a significant barrier to communication, especially to listening. Many assume quickly that meaning, feelings, experiences are shared between themselves and their partner(s). Especially in the honeymoon phase, this is easy to do. Everything feels like it clicks, so often things that don’t’ fit that story are over-looked or ignored. The truth that I have found as a relational being and as a therapist is that each human experience is unique from the inside out. Even identical experiences can be felt and interpreted in dramatically different ways. Please don’t assume similarities, even if you have similar backgrounds. Ask questions! Ask more questions! Find out who the person you love really is on the inside. Get curious and stay curious about their unique experience of life.

Gender roles. It only feels fair to claim my position as a gender non-conformist here. I have outside the box views on gender to be perfectly honest with you all. Yet, it is also a true fact that in my psychology program’s couple’s counseling course text we were schooled on the research that shows how damaging gender roles are in relationships. This is not only true in heterosexual or cis relationships either. We have gender roles so deeply ingrained in us that they show up in complex ways in gay relationships, poly relationships, trans and gender-non-binary relationships and whoever else is doing whatever else out there. This is way too complicated to explore here. Maybe in some future blog I will unpack it more thoroughly. Suffice it to say here that gender roles are rigid by nature and what relationships need most to survive is flexibility. The more you can let go of stereotypes of who should do what (wash the dishes, make more money, parent, cry, rage) because that is implied by their gender, the better off your relationship will be.

Ok, and now (horns please) to the Couple’s Dialogue…(here is a step by step cheat sheet to accompany the next portion)

            First there are intentions to be set and a proper environment to create. According to Silberstein (remember him? he created this thing), the dialogue needs the following context to be most successful:

“Have the intention to iron out difficulties, be willing.

Create a safe environment for communication, sit down with no distractions.

Slow things down through structure. Use the allotted times for uninterrupted speaking and listening.

Drop 'you' statements and use I statements to remove blame.

Recognize and accept the other's point of view.

Write down specific, measureable agreements that come out of the dialogue”

Most of that seems fairly self-explanatory. However, I want to briefly highlight the importance of using ‘I’ statements. I also want to acknowledge how difficult that can be. When we are grieved at something a loved one has done, we often feel a burning need to talk about what they have done to us. Yet, this can draw us down all kinds of sticky roads to huge miscommunications about intentions and missed meanings. Start with how you feel. If you need to speak to something your partner has done, acknowledge that it is your perception you are sharing and create space for their side of the story. The impact on you cannot be questioned. If you are hurt, you are hurt. Speak to that. Try especially to avoid making guesses about their intentions (i.e. that they were trying to hurt you).  

            Before you start, get consent. The first step is to make sure your partner is actually up for this kind of processing. For all the reasons above, this is not the lightest or easiest thing to do. If they are just waking up, just home from work or having a headache, they may not be able to be present in the way communication at this level requires. In the traditional method one states, “I would like to have a Couple’s Dialogue. Is now a good time?” I invite you to come up with your own, less clunky language for this. In my relationship, I usually just say something like, “Is it ok to process now?” or, “Is this an ok time to talk about stuff?” As long as you and your partner have shared language that clearly communicates you are asking for a specific level of and kind of discussion. Of course, in our busy lives, it can be easy to feel like there is never a good time for processing deep and difficult material. However, if you cannot have a Couple’s Dialogue when your partner asks for it, please commit to a time within 24-48 hours when you can give them the opportunity to say what they need to say.

            Step one: Mirroring. In this phase the person who has asked for the dialogue speaks their piece. This person in the formula is known as ‘the sender.’ Their partner is called ‘the receiver’ and that is what they do. Just listen. This is the time to put yourself aside and just hear your partner. Try to take in exactly what they are saying. To make this more of an explicit necessity the task of the receiver after listening is to “Mirror,” to repeat word-for-word as closely as possible what the sender has said. Here you are not adding anything simply re-stating what your partner has said to make sure you got it right. Then you check with your partner, the sender, to make sure you got it right. They can then correct anything you missed or changed and you try again until you have it just as they said it. It can be astounding how much patience this takes and how many ways we modify what our partner has said. But this is how we learn to really listen, so keep trying!

            Step two: Validation. Here you (the receiver) reflect back to your partner why what they are saying makes sense. If part or all of what they are saying doesn’t make sense this is also the time to be curious about those parts that don’t make sense to you. Usually this step is described as a rational type of validation. If the sender has said, “I feel stressed and lonely when you stay out at work or having drinks with your co-workers until 10 o’clock most weeknights and leave me alone with the kids” (after you have repeated that back accurately), you might validate the statement by saying, “That makes sense because I can understand how cooking, cleaning and getting the kids to bed can be stressful, and how being away most weeknights cuts in to our time together as a couple and leaves you feeling lonely.” If your truth is that you are actually only out until 9 most of the time, and that it is usually only two weeknights, don’t get stuck on that right now. Just be with what your partner is saying and feeling right now. You will get your turn!

            Step three: Empathy. This is where you (the receiver) try to really feel beyond the words and logic into the emotional experience of your partner (the sender). Really get your heart in cooperation with your mind to think about the whole person your partner is and the situation at hand. To the above example you might say, “I can see why this hurts you so much. I know you watched your dad disappear into work before he left your mom for his partner. That must feel really lonely and also scary for you.”  Or you could say, “Wow. I can really imagine how I would feel if you left me with all of that. I get why you have been so angry.” The key is to really make every effort here to see at a feeling level where the sender is coming from and to join them in that experience, again, even if that doesn’t match your side of the story. You also want to check out your empathic attunement as you go. After you offer an empathic statement ask, “Is that right,” or “Is that how you feel?” Maybe you imagine your partner is angry, but actually the feeling is devastation and depression. Allow the care and love you feel for your partner to be present in your statements and stay curious and open.

            Once step three is complete, it is the receiver’s turn to respond and they become the sender. The former sender becomes the receiver. This is the time where you can say that you really believe that you only stay out two or three nights a week until 9 pm and that you feel the exaggeration is an attempt to take away time you need to relax or network or whatever the case may be. Perhaps after being listened to and validated in this (maybe for a couple of rounds), you and your partner can come up with an agreement that feels acceptable to both of you – that two nights a week until 9:30 is fine, but more than that requires advance planning or something like that. As stated above, write these agreements down and be willing to honor them.

This switch from receiver to sender is not meant to be a change of subject, if you have something else you have wanted to talk about, save that until the issue your partner (the original sender) has brought to you has gotten a thoughtful response. Changing the subject without responding to your partner’s issue can undermine all of the work you just did to validate and empathize by making it just another instance where you are focused on one-upping or your own needs. Give time and space to how you feel about what your partner has said, and if applicable try to find a compromise between you in the matter. Then, if you do have something else to discuss, ask if your partner is willing to have a separate dialogue on another issue.

            This way of talking is clunky and my hope is that once you have ingrained these steps you can engage with them in a more flowing way. But, I assure you the goofy, awkward and at times very frustrating work is worth it. Good luck!

   Alice Phipps is the content writer @The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center. 


Alice Phipps is the content writer @The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center.