The Ties That Bind
It began, as it usually does, with love's promise. At last, you told yourself, that nameless unrest within you would be soothed, and you would feel safe enough to relax and trust again. Even in the face of the archetypal frenzy of love, you felt it. And then a small snake parted the green grass, and everything changed. Perhaps gradually, perhaps abruptly, the climate grew colder (or immensely hotter). You experienced a disturbing reversal. A sense of shock and betrayal replaced your ecstatic feelings. You lost hope that your needs would ever be met. Communication suffered drastically, and the Struggle began—the Struggle to recover that which was promised in the early magic of love and, incidently, in the early magic of childhood.
In the midst of your pain it can be extraordinarily difficult to hear that this is exactly what is needed—to come angrily to the realization that there is another being in relationship with you whose needs, thoughts, and desires are immensely different from yours.
This is the second stage of love, the Struggle. The Struggle can go on for decades, as some of us have witnessed in ourselves, our parents, our friends and relatives. Perhaps the Buddha's Four Noble Truths begin to make sense:
- 1. There is suffering.
- 2. The cause of suffering is desire.
- 3. There is a way out of suffering. And that is what this article is about—there is a way out of the suffering that the Struggle evokes.
- 4. For now, we will leave The Fourth Noble Truth to practitioners of Buddhism.
The beginning of the way out of the Struggle is intentional communication. Beyond that lies the revivifying of your relationship—not today's topic.
There are so few positive role models available to us in terms of conscious communication—our parents often stayed conneced by quibbling and fighting. Depending on your history, and that of your partner, being truly listened to, mirrored, and validated may be a unique event in your life. The Intentional Dialogue™ is designed to be a corrective experience.
The Intentional Dialogue™ was created by Harville Hendricks, author of the book, Getting the Love You Want, and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt.
As most of us know, safe communication enhances intimacy in our relationships and is one of the most powerful of the Ties That Bind. Conscious communication restores connectedness, respect, and generosity to the relationship.
The purpose of The Intentional Dialogue™ is to create a safe structure for communication:
- 1. It teaches couples to be engaged listeners.
- 2. It supports individuation and difference in the relationship, viz., there are two people in the relationship, and each person experiences the same event in a markedly different way.
- 3. It introduces a high level of positive energy into the relationship.
- 4. It is used to address difficult issues and to contain difficult feelings.
The goal is to achieve zero negativity—or as Harville says it, "No negative emissions in the system!"
In this article I am offering an outline of The Intentional Dialogue™ in hopes that it will help couples, friends, parents and children to restore harmony and pleasure to their relationships.
Outline for the Simple The Intentional Dialogue™
The person who is communicating is called the Sender. The person listening is called the Receiver. For the time of the dialogue the Receiver "parks" his/her reactions and feelings in order to be completely present for the Sender until it is his/her turn—no matter how loaded the issue the Sender is communicating. To repeat: The point is not agreement, but enhanced understanding and respect.
The Sender speaks using "I" language. Example: "I loved that you took out the garbage this morning before you left." Generally this communication would include some negatives like "finally," or "without my asking you ten times." Since criticism always alienates, this negative piece is "parked" and/or metabolized by the Receiver. There is no such thing as constructive criticism in a conscious relationship.
In response, the Receiver mirrors the Sender's message, word for word or by paraphrasing, according to the preference of the Sender, using a lead sentence like, "Let me see if I got that." Or, "What I heard you say is …." Then: "Did I get that?" (It's OK not to get it and to ask for a resend—no blame, since blame is a form of negativity.)
Then the Receiver asks, "Is there more about that?"
If yes, the Sender says more and is mirrored. If there is no more, the Sender proceeds to Summarizing.
Receiver: "Let's see if I got all of that." The Receiver proceeds to summarize the entire communication, ending with, "Did I get that?" If no, the Receiver asks, "Please send what I didn't get again" until the Sender says, "Yes, you got it." Once the Sender says "Yes," the Receiver proceeds to Validating.
The Receiver from the first example might validate by saying: "It makes sense that it would make you happy that I took out the garbage. I know how much it means to you to have an orderly home, and I know you don't want to do it all yourself." Did I get that?" Sender replies. If the answer is "No," more sending and receiving is done until the Sender feels validated.
Validation is not a statement of agreement. It gives the Sender the explicit message, "What you say makes sense." The unspoken communication here is, "You are not crazy"—an important statement for anyone who has gotten an early message that she is crazy. It is an opportunity to enter the other person's world and to discover it from her point of view—no matter how divergent it is from yours. Curiosity is a sure-fire way to avoid reactivity. My motto: Don't get mad, get curious.
Empathy is the Receiver's stretch into the other's world, imagining what else the Sender might be feeling, thus beginning to touch the other's fear, anger, sadness, or joy. For example: "I imagine you might also be feeling relieved. Did I get that?" Verification is vital.
In addition to the simple dialogue there are other techniques that are not discussed here. If you are curious, The Learning for Life GroupTM gives presentations and workshops on this and other subjects.
The most common complaint about The Intentional DialogueTM is that it feels artificial. Yes, it almost always feels artificial, especially at first. Any new behavior feels awkward and artificial in the beginning (think: learning a new language, studying the piano, or getting sober).
With practice, the dialogue becomes seamless and healing. Harville says that we begin with the mechanical, then we become masters, and after that we learn to fly.
Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy