Do you feel like your partner never really listens to you? Do they complain that you don’t talk to them about things? You need to improve communication.
Sounds familiar, right?
We’ve been told over and over again that good, effective communication is one of the secrets of a strong, long-lasting relationship. But unfortunately, most of us just aren’t very good at it. Because it’s counter-intuitive!
Well, just like anything else, communicating effectively is a skill. That means you can learn it. You just need the right tools.
One of the most important tools that we use in Imago relationship counseling is the Couple’s Dialogue. As you’ve probably guessed from this opening, the Couple’s Dialogue is a method of communicating effectively with your partner.
How does it help?
By teaching you three processes that are designed to:
In short, the Couple’s Dialogue helps people to feel both heard and understood.
What are those three processes? Mirroring, validation, and empathy. You’ve probably heard a version of some of them before. But let’s dive into what they mean in Imago to improve communication between you and your partner.
We all want to be seen and heard more than anything else. As babies, if we were lucky, our mothers or fathers would emulate our baby sounds. In other words, they would mirror us! It is a primitive need, a pre-verbal longing to be known.
Often, people initially balk at the prospect of having their partner parrot back what was said to them. But when their partner hears them well enough to mirror accurately (not changing the words to other, similar words), their negative reaction almost always disappears! It feels so good to be seen and heard in our own words that we are willing to forgo our negative initial response.
The other benefit of mirroring is that usually, when our partner is talking, we are revising our own response, essentially waiting for them to finish so we can talk (or, sometimes, not even waiting!). This is normal and natural, but definitely not good listening.
However, if we force ourselves to listen well enough to mirror, it is impossible to think of our own response at the same time. Basically, mirroring makes us listen in a way that is conscious and intentional instead of reactive.
Even so, sometimes the listener doesn’t get it quite right the first time. When they mirror, it is revealed that they didn’t understand or follow what the sender was trying to say. This is called “the angel of forgetfulness.”
Remember, this isn’t a memory contest. When this happens, the speaker tries again. And the listener continues to repeat back what they’ve heard until both people are on the same page.
This is important because it can point out problems both in listening and in speaking clearly. You can’t have one without the other!
This is one that often confuses people.
Validation is not the listener admitting to the speaker that they were wrong and the speaker was right. It has nothing to do with winning and losing — or right and wrong.
So, what is validation? It is a way for the listener to tell their partner that the way they think and feel isn’t crazy or silly. That you can understand their point of view and why they might feel that way based on their experiences.
Most importantly, it establishes that in every relationship there are two points of view, and each of you has a right to that point of view — whether or not it is the same as your partner’s. It breaks the symbiosis that often plagues dysfunctional relationships.
Again, this does not mean that the listener agrees with that point of view. Just that they understand and accept that their partner’s point of view is true and meaningful for them.
Common validating phrases include things like:
“You make sense because…”
“I totally understand why you would feel that way…”
“Your explanation makes a lot of sense…”
“I see what you mean…”
Validation is a way of affirming that their point of view matters and that you care about it. Making someone feel validated tends to bolster connectedness and improve trust.
What is empathy not? It is not feeling bad for someone because they felt hurt. That’s sympathy. And many, many people confuse the two.
Empathy is being able to imagine what another person might be feeling. If it helps, think of it as “walking in another person’s shoes.”
You’ve heard — and understood — what they were trying to communicate to you. You’ve validated that their point of view matters. Empathy is taking that next step. Imagining what they must have felt like experiencing those things. By putting yourself in their position.
Imagine that you took your partner to a work party and forgot to introduce them, leading to a fight with them complaining about your actions. Why did this happen? Empathy can help you understand. Ask yourself: “How would I have felt if they took me to their work party and didn’t introduce me?” Invisible? Like they were ashamed of you? Angry at their dismissal or lack of concern for you?
Guessing what your partner feels about what they said often establishes connection, because very often we actually do know how they are feeling… because we know our partner intimately.
Once you have mirrored, validated, and empathized, it is your turn to talk and share your point of view, being careful not to refute or diminish their experience.
Does all of this sound painfully awkward?
Of course it does! People don’t talk like that in normal life.
But do you know what else was painfully awkward in the beginning? Learning to swim. Or ride a bike. Or speak at all.
Because learning something new is always awkward.
But if you keep practicing with the couple’s dialogue, I promise that it will become more natural over time. You’ll find ways to fit it into your normal conversations. Your normal speech patterns. It will become second nature. You will improve communication with your spouse.
And when you do, you’ll feel so much closer and happier with your partner.
Want a bit of professional help to get yourself started? Don’t hesitate to reach out!