By Bradley Riddell
Couples counselling is for relationships that aren’t accomplishing what they once upon a time used to and both parties are feeling the strain of knowing that what they once had seems to be slipping further and further away.
This doesn’t mean to say that both parties are necessarily in conscious acknowledgement of this, however.
We all have different ways of coping with difficulties in our lives and denial is a common, and some might say inevitable, response when we don’t know what to do about something that isn’t working in our favour.
I once heard, or read, that it’s not so much the “talking cure” that we should be looking for but the “communication cure” and that’s couples counselling summed up rather well, I feel, as communication is the key ingredient in long lasting and successful relationships of all types.
Imago Dialogue – couples counselling
IMAGO DIALOGUE is all about how to restore communication in a structured and a safe way for both parties.
IMAGO DIALOGUE draws clear boundaries that have been pre-agreed upon by both parties.
By using these pre-agreed protocols you both become free to express your misgivings/criticisms/feelings, in a protective structure that prevents the triggering of the usual responses that lead to heated arguments or passive-aggressive silent withdrawals.
When emotions run high and frustrations bubble over we all say things we don’t mean in the heat of the moment and then damage can be inflicted and we often slink away to lick our wounds or we try to forget about it by pushing it down into the depths of our minds, out of sight; the denial that some have come to accept as inevitable and therefore unconsciously surrender to, believing there is nothing they can do but to stoically endure it.
The distress/frustration/anger/pain is still very much there though, even if we have managed to suppress it into a silent temporary extinction, for now.
It will, because it isn’t extinct, resurface again at some point in the immediate, interim or distant future when something sets it off and when that happens we’ll be back to trading blows and insults, at least metaphorically if not physically, as if there was no pause in hostilities and we’re back to where we started.
Like boxers trading blows in the ring old wounds will reopen as we go at it yet again.
The IMAGO DIALOGUE helps couples regain control by using very simple, yet powerful protocols to facilitate effective and helpful communication.
1. INITIATE THE DIALOGUE/ASK TO TALK
If one of you has something you’d like to air, or get off your chest, ask your partner if you can “do that dialogue thing?”or any other phrase, or even gesture, that indicates this?
It may be that your partner is busy or simply doesn’t want to talk right now and that’s fine; you are allowed to say no.
But if you do say no give an alternative time when it can happen.
You might, for example, say;
“Ok, but just give me a moment to finish what I’m doing.”
Or maybe you just aren’t in the mood for conversation in which case you can make a time for it tomorrow maybe?
Or later that same day, perhaps?
The golden rule is to acknowledge the request and treat it with the respect it deserves.
This is, after all, your partner and he or she is taking a chance in reaching out to you.
They are communicating that there is something important they’d like to speak with you about.
If it goes unsaid it will almost certainly fester and cause resentment and antagonism and this never helps in relationships but is, alas, all too common.
2. THE SENDER
Whoever initiated the dialogue will be the “sender”.
They will send their message to the “receiver”.
The “receiver” will listen, wordlessly and without interruption, perhaps offering what we call in therapy “encouragers” – occasional “umm hmm’s”- where appropriate just to signal that they are paying attention?
Eye contact alone, however, is usually a good indication but “encouragers” help too by literally encouraging the dialogue to flow.
Once the “sender” has come to a natural end it is the turn of the “receiver” to feed-back what they have heard.
3. THE RECEIVER
The job of the “receiver” is to evidence their listening by repeating back as far as possible word for word what the “sender” has been sending them.
Because this exercise is designed to be a structured one in which both participants play along to the set rules, it is important to use standardised statements and phrases that are the same for both parties.
Therefore, the “receiver” should say to the “sender” when the “sender” appears to have finished saying what they want to say;
“So, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying………(repeat the senders words and phrases here……) am I getting that right?”
The “sender” will then confirm if you are getting it right, or correct you if you’re not, and then add the correct actual meaning? The “receiver” then needs to reflect that back and, again, check if he/she is;
“hearing you correctly?” or “getting that right?”
The next very important step is to ask the ‘sender’;
“And is there more?”
You will find when you first do this exercise that there is likely to be a lot ‘more’ as it’s new to you and so there is likely to be a lot of things that have remained unsaid, or bottled up, for some time.
Once you get to the point where there is no more, having consistently asked at the end of each reflection if there is, then you add what we call the “empathic hook”.
4. THE EMPATHIC HOOK
This is a straightforward step that simply involves summing up everything you have been told and adding on to the end of it all a statement along the lines of;
“And I can understand how hurtful/annoying/angry (or whatever the expressed emotion/feeling/thought was) that might make you”
The whole purpose of this exercise is;
- to hear each other; to listen and be listened to
- to evidence that you have heard each other by repeating the phrases and words used by the other
- to not add any refutations or counter-arguments or defences to what’s being said to you but to merely reflect it back and check that your reflection is “right” and “correct”
- to check whether there is “more?”
- to add an ‘empathic hook’ to your final summation to demonstrate that you understand and care about the others feelings and emotions EVEN IF YOU DON’T NECESSARILY SHARE THEM!
5. THE SWITCH AROUND
The ‘sender’ now becomes the receiver and you repeat the steps with each other in the opposing roles using the same steps to achieve the same end;
- To speak
- To be listened to
- To have evidence given that you have been accurately heard
- To be asked for confirmation that your words have been accurately understood
- To have the opportunity to go on ‘sending’ until you’re done
- To be understood and empathised with; to have your feelings/ thoughts/emotions affirmed as valid and real
History of Imago Dialogue for couples counselling
The history of this interaction comes from two American psychologists who worked as “systemic therapists” otherwise known as family therapists.
Their job was to counsel families and help with marriage and relationship issues between family members too not just husband and wife or partners. So it was a little embarrassing for them that they both had a broken marriage behind them!
They met at a conference and were amused, relieved and intrigued to learn more about how and why their marriages had failed.
They teamed up and pursued this question and in the process formed “Imago Therapy”, fell in love and got married and are still together to this day having trained thousands of therapists and counsellors and social workers and other interested parties in their approach.
Their names are Harville Hendrix and Helen Le Kelly-Hunt.
You can find their many books, videos and articles on the internet and there are regular workshops around the world offering help and assistance and training to interested parties whether professions or not.
It is hard to imagine you will find this easy and natural at first, whenever have we ever found anything new to us easy and natural?
So don’t be discouraged if this feels awkward and clumsy and ineffective at first.
Stick with it.
It will get easier.
And as it does, through repetitious return to it and sticking to the protocols, it will become more and more effective and useful.
In time this can, as has for many, become an instinctual and natural everyday dialogue between couples and has allowed them to air their grievances, resolve them there and then and move on with the rest of their day and all the other things they had perhaps sleepwalked through previously, in a kind of fugue-like state because of all the simmering resentments smouldering just beneath the surface of their conscious awareness.
Give this approach a try and feel free to let me know directly – firstname.lastname@example.org – or post on here how it was for you and your personal successes or failures with it, I’d be very interested to know?
Written by Bradley Riddell MBACP