The Intentional Dialogue is a transformational 15 minute practice that can help you and your partner to express hopes, fears, and disappointments more intimately and productively than ever before. It can save your relationship and increase intimacy immediately. I have taught this to many couples with success and even use it in my own partnership on a regular basis. I can honestly say that it protects our relationship from falling into unsaid resentments and helps us stay honest and open with one another.
When you notice that you have a store of hurt feelings or frustration with your partner, ask them if they would be open to doing an Intentional Dialogue with you. Or if you notice your partner is snipping at you unconsciously, you can invite your partner to share with you in a Dialogue. Usually they will feel intensely relieved there will finally be a safe place to clear emotions that have been under the surface and come back to connection.
Underneath every complaint is an unexpressed desire.
The Intentional Dialogue helps partners to clear the gunk that is in the way of expressing desires for connection, love, tenderness, and play by creating a safe structure to express those upset emotions.
Here is how to do an Intentional Dialogue:
1-Set up a time for the Dialogue.
2-At the agreed upon time sit down facing one another and relax into connection. Make sure all distractions are away: no phones, no children. Consciously create openness in your body language. Uncross your arms, relax your shoulders, and sit knee to knee, eye to eye. Take a breath and relax. Remember that you love this person in front of you.
3-Decide who will begin sharing their feelings first. For our example let’s assume that your partner is sharing his/her feelings and you are listening first.
4-Start the timer for 5 minutes then ask your partner: “How have I hurt you?”
5-Your partner will now unload whatever they have been feeling and thinking, one sentence at a time, while you breathe deeply and simply listen. Do your best to not take what your partner says too personally. It may be a lot to listen to a laundry list of complaints, and even some that you may completely disagree with, but it is an enormous gift to your partner and to your relationship to listen with love and compassion. Your partner has a bunch of gunky feelings and you are helping them to release some of that emotional tension. So just breathe deep and listen.
6- After each sentence your partner shares, you reflect back what they said, using their exact words. It might be hard, especially if there was a lot expressed or you don’t agree with the reality your partner had, but just do your best to repeat what they said. After you reflect a sentence ask “Did I get it?” “What did I miss?”
You are gifting your partner with an opportunity to feel heard.
7- Then ask, “What else?”. Here you are mining for more complaints and hurt feelings. Usually when our partner is upset we turn away because it’s uncomfortable. But the only way to heal that hurt between you two is to turn in and seek what other feelings are in there. Seek your partner’s complaints with the love and curiosity you would seek to find out what’s at the bottom of the mysterious and murky ocean floor. Ask for all of it.
Let yourself be completely undefended and genuinely ask to hear if there are more complaints and hurts: “What else?”
8-Continue reflecting what your partner says with each sentence, and asking “What else?” until the timer goes off. Then you will say the three magic words that create a flood of oxytocin in your partner, creating the first healing steps towards reconnection. In as loving and relaxed manner as you can say to your partner: “That makes sense.”
9-Next is the empathy step. Express as much genuine empathy for your partner’s experience of what he/she shared in the complaints.
There is something about hearing the words “That makes sense” and feeling your partner’s empathy that creates magic in a relationship.
There is something about your partner validating and generously practicing empathy towards your subjective experience, even if they actually disagree, that softens and opens your heart.
10-Then switch roles and your partner will listen and reflect as you share your hurts, one sentence at a time.
12-After both of you have shared and listened you will now share appreciations. It can be tempting to go into problem-solving or processing, but this is usually the worst time to do that. You just opened the scab off a wound and may be pretty tender. So it might not be the best time to problem solve or process just yet. Better to put some soothing salve on that wound first.
One of the best ways to soothe an emotional wound is through appreciation.
At this step each partner takes turns sharing what they appreciate about one another, until each has shared three. Be as specific as you can. If you loved her cooking the other night, tell her exactly what you loved. If you are appreciating how he is taking care of shopping lately, speak about a specific night you were so exhausted and how good it felt to come home and know that chore was done.
The more specific your appreciation is, the more your partner can actually feel it and take it in.
If you want to share more than three then please do, the more appreciations you can unconditionally shower on one another, the stronger and more resilient your relationship will be.
And that’s it! This process is so simple and so profoundly healing. One of my teachers has talked about how he did this daily with his partner for one month and it totally transformed how they related. In one fifteen minute session, I have seen it open and transform couples who have been together decades. My personal experience of using this practice is that it creates a new kind of conversation between you and your partner. It creates a conversation that is about mutual respect and care, even when it’s difficult to hear.
It can take a few times to get the hang of how this practice flows in real life so practice often and be gentle with one another as you learn.
Here is a fictional example of a couple working through the Intentional Dialogue process:
John: Let’s do an Intentional Dialogue.
(Both sitting down, looking into each other’s eyes, breathing deeply but gently, and starting to relax. John sets the timer for 5 minutes)
John: What’s bothering you honey?
Christine: Well, I’m pissed off that you keep taking my stuff. It’s like I’m responsible for your needs...blah blah blah blah blah blah!
John: So you are pissed that I’m taking your stuff. Did I get it?
Christine: And it feels like you’re making me responsible for you!
John: Thanks, it feels like I’m making you responsible for me.
John: What else?
Christine: And how come we haven’t been doing our practices as much! You say you want to but then we never schedule them. And it hurts. Because I want to connect with you. And I’m sad we aren’t connecting.
John: You’re hurt because you want to connect with me and I haven’t been doing practices like I said I would. Is that right? What else?
Christine: Yah, Well that’s it for now.
John: That makes sense. I can understand how you would be upset that you’re taking responsibility for me when you do a lot to make sure your needs are met. I can see how that would feel like I’m taking advantage of you. And I know that practice is really important to you and it makes you feel more secure when we have it scheduled. I could see how that you would make you feel disconnected and hurt that I haven’t taken initiative to schedule our practices.
Christine: Thanks honey. That feels good. Okay now it’s your turn. I’ve got the timer on. What’s been bothering you?
(John shares and Christine reflects it back going through all the steps)
Christine: Okay thanks for doing the Dialogue with me. Let’s do appreciations. I appreciate how you really listened when I was taking my turn. I could feel you breathing deeply so you could really hold my emotions even though you disagreed at times.
John: I appreciate how you gave me a foot massage while I watched football the other night.
(And so forth until we both share three appreciations)
John: Okay, let’s go do some things with our day and we can come back to this if there is anything else we need to do to problem-solve. Okay?
Christine: Sure, sounds good. Love you.
That’s it! Simple, though not easy. And profoundly transformational.
I hope you will take this into your relationship and see the difference this practice can make in creating more connection, better communication, and more undefended vulnerability in your relationships!
Karen Wolfe, LMFT
Karen Wolfe, MFT offers depth therapy with practices to deepen your connection to your Self and to others for individuals and couples in the Bay Area and via video conference across California