When we are listening and we find that our partner's point of view is very different from our own, it is our inclination to correct what we perceive to be their misunderstanding or incorrect assumption about the situation. We now know that good communication requires us to learn how to understand and even respect our partner's reality and his/her right to hold a different perspective than the one we are attached to.

In Imago therapy we prescribe three basic elements of a dialogue that supports friendship and connection. In the first of these we mirror our partner's words and expressions in order to be sure that we have accurately understood exactly what our partner wants us to hear about their reality or "truth".

The next step is validation wherein we attempt to "get" or see the sense in our partner's world of logic. And, if we let ourselves "sit awhile" inside our partner’s world, it actually does make sense! For example, it makes sense that our partner would have liked to receive a call to inform him/her that we were going to be late for a date. It doesn't matter that we might have been delayed and unable to call for reasons that are legitimate; our partner's desire for us to call is still valid.

What is difficult about validation is that we can experience it as agreement when we validate and understand our partner’s reality, and it may well be that our own reality is very different and we therefore do not agree! What is hard for most people to accept is that we can disagree and still understand and validate our partner’s world. We simply have to see it through his/her eyes and care about what it feels like to live in that different reality.

Foundational Dialogue

We often say that friendship is the ground on which rests the security of a lasting relationship. All research points to this as basic truth when it comes to what serves as “the juice” of loving and fulfilling human commitment. To the extent that we are friends, we look forward to and seek out time together; we play and laugh with each other, and we readily resolve our differences because we feel pain when the relationship is distressed.

The cornerstone of friendship, however, is dialogue! In dialogical communication I let you know that it is not only okay to be different from me, it is essential. How can I be your friend if I treat you as if your individuality, your truth, your being has to be the same as mine in order for me to accept and love you? I can only love YOU if there is a YOU to love! If you have to be ME in order to be acceptable and lovable, then relationship can only be conflictual.

In dialogue, I listen very carefully not only to your words but also to the meaning those words have to you. I try to get inside your "world" where you live and come to understand deeply what it is like for you to look in at yourself and out at the world through beliefs that have informed in your unique experiences of life. I seek to feel with you what you feel and in this way I come to know you for who you are while I set aside my investment in your being who I think you should be.

In this process, I do not need to relinquish my own view of the world because it is possible for two different realities to exist in the same loving space. In fact, it is only in the space where "the juice" of differences can coexist peacefully that true and mature love is able to survive.

The Formula of Dialogue

For many who initially learn the structure of Couples Dialogue, it feels contrived and unnatural. It is just like learning the multiplication tables; it takes the discipline of learning the basics and, in fact, doing some memorizing in order for the process to become fluid and automatic.

The structure begins by "making an appointment." This simply means that you should make it clear that you were requesting time to do a specific process. If you don't do this, the safety of dialogue is not established and it is likely that you will descend into your usual way of interacting. For most, this hasn't worked out so well. Dialogue seems to take a lot of time, but if you step back and look at it you'll see that it is what you are now doing that takes up weeks and months and sometimes years of time.

In the beginning, one partner shares his or her truth and reality while the other listens carefully not only to the words but also to the meaning these words have two the person sharing. Periodically the listening partner will mirror or paraphrase what is being heard and the sender will verify the accuracy of the mirror. When this is done patiently and sincerely, the sender arrives at a point of completion and the listener summarizes.

When the listener has accurately summarized the words and feelings of the sender, the listener attempts to share his or her ability to understand (but not necessarily agree with) the reality and feelings that exist within the sender's world. These latter steps are called Validation and Empathy.

It is obvious, that when the subject is charged with feelings that convey an investment in different truths, this can be a very challenging process to engage in. Practice and experience, however, have proven over and over that this kind of interaction shared both ways is the only way to connection. It takes practice and perseverance and often guidance, but the outcome is worth every step.