Relationship Salve: The Practice of Intentional Dialogues

By Leo Babauta

A couple months ago, I started a daily practice with my wife Eva called the Intentional Dialogue process, aimed at helping us become better at talking about difficult issues.

Now, Eva and I have a great marriage, and we love each other deeply. But like any couple, sometimes we feel frustrated or hurt by the other person, or sometimes we don’t feel we’re being heard.

Every person in a long-term relationship knows what I’m talking about. In fact, this same dynamic applies to any long-term friend, any family relationship with a good degree of intimacy. Difficult conversations are touchy.

Things shifted drastically when I learned something simple and yet profound, from talking to renowned relationship/men’s coach John Wineland a couple months ago …

Most couples violate a basic tenet: I’m not going to make you feel wrong.

Think about that for a minute. When we get into an argument, we’re basically making our loved one feel like they’re wrong. We might say, “Sure, but actually …” and then go on to explain how their point of view or actions are all wrong. When we criticize them, we’re saying they’re wrong.

Who likes to feel this way? It can especially hurt when our trusted partner is making us feel wrong. And if you’re like most couples, you might be doing this every day.

So how does the Intentional Dialogue process help with this? It helps you communicate to your partner (and really try to believe yourself) that they are not wrong. That how they feel makes sense.

The Intentional Dialogue Process

I’m not an expert on this process, but here’s how we’ve been practicing it:

  1. **Have one person be the “sender” and the other be the “receiver”. If one of you has a frustration, you ask the other person to have an Intentional Dialogue. By agreement, the other person can ask to do it later when they’re not busy, but they have to pick a time within the next 24 hours. Commit to doing this process when the other person needs you. It’s good to separate the roles like this, because usually when we have relationship talks, it is both people trying to be heard and understood, and neither is trying to do the hearing and understanding.
  2. Prepare for your role. The sender should give some thought to how they might concisely state their frustration in the beginning. The receiver should do their best to show up ready to listen and empathize, and to put aside their own story about whatever the issue is so they can hear the other person’s side. This can be difficult.
  3. The sender shares and the receiver listens. When the dialogue starts, the sender shares what they’re frustrated or hurt about, by saying something like, “When you did this, I felt this way.” And then continues to try to share their experience and perspective. The receiver just listens, trying to really understand their partner with an open heart, without trying to explain themselves. The receiver should try to notice when their own story is getting in the way of listening (for example, “Hey, I was only trying to __!”) and put their story aside for now. Just try to understand.
  4. The receiver mirrors and confirms. When the sender is done talking, the receiver should try to mirror back what the sender said, in the sender’s words. Yes, that can mean just repeating what they said, without putting it into your own words or interpreting it. Try to be true to what they said. It helps them feel heard, and can help them show you where you mis-heard them. If the sender has a lot to say, they might do it in chunks, allowing the receiver to mirror the first part of what they have to say before going on to the next part. When the receiver mirrors the sender’s message back to them, they should end by saying, “Did I get that?” (sender: “yes”) and then “Is there more?” Then the sender can say, “Yes, there’s more …” or “No, that’s all.”
  5. The magic words are: “That makes sense.” When the sender is done talking, and the receiver has mirrored their words and gotten confirmation that they got it right … that’s when the magic happens. That’s when the receiver simply says, “That makes sense.” Those three words are what the sender really wants to hear. Now, the receiver doesn’t have to agree with the receiver, he or she just has to see that it’s understandable that they feel this way, given their perspective. That’s all. If you’re really trying to understand the other person’s perspective, you can see that they’re not crazy, that how they feel makes sense.
  6. The receiver then does empathy. Next, the receiver will try to give empathy to the sender, after saying, “That makes sense.” For example, “It does makes sense that you’d feel that way … I imagine you felt hurt when I did that, maybe you were hoping I’d be more supportive, and you felt abandoned, rejected by me, frustrated that I wasn’t listening to you. And when I didn’t want to hear your side and just accused you of complaining again, that probably felt like I didn’t want to understand you, and felt like I was judging and criticizing you for feeling the way you do.” This is just a quick example, but the main idea is that the receiver is trying to get into the sender’s shoes, and really show the sender he or she can understand what they’re going through. At the end of this step, the receiver says, “Did I get that right? Is there anything else you wish I had said?” And the sender can then fill in any holes or correct the receiver’s perceptions. That’s it!
  7. You can switch roles if needed. At this point, if the sender feels heard and understood, the receiver might want to share their side of the story. And so he or she can ask to switch roles, and then start the process from the beginning.

This is all better explained by John Wineland and his co-teacher Guru Jagat in this great video. Watch it and you’ll understand the process, I think.

The Benefits of the Process

You might notice that in the above process, there’s no solution seeking, just understanding. So how does this help if there’s no resolution to the conflict?

What Eva and I have found is that this process changes everything. We start to respect the other person’s point of view, we feel understood and not frustrated, and we feel a sense of intimacy and trust with each other.

That’s profound.

It really changes how we feel about each other, how we relate to each other. It means we can work together with trust to find a solution, but sometimes we don’t even need a solution, because all we really wanted was to feel understood.

John shares a few additional benefits (these are his words):

  • A sense of sacred partnership, as couples realize they can be a source of each other’s deep healing
  • Sexual intimacy is often quickly rekindled
  • Lovers start to feel safe sharing anything, even long withheld desires, as a feeling of safety and acceptance takes hold
  • Couples are able to get to the real issues, now that they know they will be heard and respected
  • Lovers start to develop a true capacity for empathy with the other that is both emotionally and spiritually rewarding

A 40-Day Practice

John recommended a 40-day challenge … commit with your partner to do this Intentional Dialogue process every day for 40 days. It means deliberately practicing every day, even when you’re not having a conflict.

The idea is that once you learn the process and gain trust in each other to work through the process, you’ll be more likely to use it when there is a conflict. And more skilled at doing it by then.

Eva and I did it for several weeks, but then got derailed by a series of visitors that threw off our schedule. We’re getting back on track and are committed to using this process to strengthen our relationship. But even doing it for a few weeks … it changes things a lot.

I hope you’ll give this a shot. It’s my hope that you’ll find the intimacy and trust that Eva and I have found.

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