When couples come for marriage counselling with me they are often struck by how different Imago Dialogue is to the way we normally speak to our partner. In this series of articles I intend to take each part of the Imago dialogue process and explain why it’s done in this way and how it can transform your relationship. Before I start the articles I want to acknowledge both Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy and my trainer Sophie Slade, who has provided me with many of the metaphors that are included in these articles. Thanks to both of them for such brilliance.
What is Imago Dialogue?
Imago dialogue is a different way of communicating with your partner. It involves three steps and two roles. In this article I will talk about the role of the receiver.
One of the great metaphors in Imago is that of the two Islands. Imagine that you are on one Island and your partner is on another. There are no mobile phones, no computers with skype, no way to communicate with each other apart from that rowing boat you see pulled up on the beach (perish the thought eh!!). If you want to talk to your partner then you have to get in your boat and row over to their Island.
Now their Island looks very different to yours. They see things from a different perspective and they have had different experiences to you. It’s your job when you are over on their island to fully understand how things look for them. We call this role in the dialogue the receiver. The receiver is the one who is doing the listening.
As the receiver you are paying attention completely to what the sender is saying. The aim is for you to be really curious. What’s it like on their island? How do they see things?
What’s the reason for doing dialogue this way?
Think about how we usually communicate with our partner. We assume so much. We assume they see things just like we do and often that we know what they are thinking and feeling. We also assume that we know why they are doing things and often that they are doing it in that way just to annoy us, right?!
The dialogue process takes us away from that position. It allows us to separate ourselves from our partner. You are you and they are themselves – different and equally valid. Immediately this gives us permission to be ourselves and takes a huge amount of pressure off the relationship. You no longer have to expend energy attempting to understand why your partner has made their decisions and how you can get them to make a different one. They made the decision they made because they thought it was the best one at the time and they are not you!!
As the receiver your job is just to mirror, validate and empathise (more about these steps in future posts). You are completely over on your partner’s island so it’s all about them and not about you. This gives you permission to concentrate fully on them and not have to sit there trying to work out how you are going to respond. Once more this frees you up to be present for your partner in a completely new way.
There are great advantages for the sender too. The sender will have everything they say mirrored by the receiver and will be able to tell if their partner is listening carefully. This cuts out any chance that you end up in that place where one partner says “I’ve been telling you how I feel but you’ve not heard a word I’m saying!” – (more on the sender in this post)
As the receiver you may well have feelings that come up for you whilst you are listening to your partner speak. You may feel angry about what your partner is saying and feel the need to answer back or defend yourself – so here’s an opportunity for growth! To be able to sit with your feelings and not react is a great skill indeed. John Gottman names defensiveness as one of the four horsemen of divorce. If you can learn that you are not going to die if you don’t give your partner a gob full back when they say something you don’t like then you are one step closer to a conscious relationship.
You can also be aware that you will not stay as the receiver forever. Once the sender has finished sending then it’s your turn to send. You can have your opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings to your partner in a safe, measured way, avoiding all of the other horsemen which have the potential to trample all over your other half!
Want to read the book? Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix explains Imago Relationship Therapy in full – relationship changing stuff!