Couples Dialogue

One of the hallmarks of effective communication is both partners in a conversation being able to hear, validate, and empathize with what the other is trying to convey. During conflict this kind of communication can be difficult, because nervous system arousal, pride, conflicting needs, strong emotions, and an inability to think clearly can get in the way.

Structured communication in times when conversation is hard is a way to compensate for a lack of clear thinking ability. The following three-step dialogue provides such structure and can help give each member an opportunity to be heard and understood. We know that feeling understood can significantly de-escalate conflict and nervous system arousal.

The dialogue has three components and steps:

  1. Mirroring: refers to reflecting what the other person is saying without judgment or interpretation.
  2. Validation: means explicitly stating that the other person’s feelings are ok and make sense given the person’s story.
  3. Empathy: goes beyond just reflecting and validating, but makes explicit the person’s understanding of the other person’s experience and feelings.

To do the dialogue, decide who is the speaker and who the one who goes through the steps (listener). The speaker should then describe present feelings and thoughts for about 1-2 minutes. Keep it short and simple so that the listener can remember what was said. The listener then goes through the three steps. This could sound like this:

  1. Mirroring: “I heard you say that…” “You also mentioned that…” etc.
  2. Validation: “That you feel … makes sense to me, because…”
  3. Empathy: “And I imagine…” or “I imagine that in that situation it must have also felt like…” etc.

The speaker should not interrupt or correct the listener while going through the three steps. After the listener is complete with the steps, roles are switched. It is important that when listening (going through the steps), there is no blaming or judgment conveyed. Speakers should not excessively correct the listener at the end of the process.

Here is an example:

Speaker: “I didn’t feel like you actually listened to me earlier when I came home. I told you I had a stressful day and nothing went as planned. And then I come home and you only kept staring at the screen. That made me angry.”

  1. Listener: “I heard you say that you felt angry when I didn’t respond to you after you told me that you had a difficult day and that I only kept staring at the screen instead of listening to you.”
  2. “That you felt angry about that makes sense to me, because I didn’t respond to you.”
  3. “And I imagine that you might have felt that I didn’t care about you or your day.”

Speaker: “Thank you. Yes. – What was going on for you?”

(Roles switched, etc.)

Based on: Hendrix. H. & Hunt, H. L. (2003). Getting the love you want workbook. New York: Atria Books.