Many couples cite ‘communication skills’ as a reason for entering therapy. What that usually means is “help me convince my partner that the way they see things is wrong.” Why is it so difficult to listen to someone who sees things differently from us? 

Communication requires assertiveness which is the midpoint between aggression and passivity.

The desire to “win” is common to both assertiveness and aggression.

The desire to be considerate is common to both assertiveness and passivity.

When a person is assertive, the desire to win is tempered by consideration for the other side’s view or feelings.

According to the Mayo Clinic, assertiveness means that you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view, while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others….It is not a debate with each partner trying to convince the other of the error of their thinking and how theirs is the only way to see things correctly.. In order to have a dialogue, input from others has to be invited and allowed. This calls for assertiveness and not aggressiveness. Debate is a smackdown to prove power while dialogue is a tango where both move.

Most couples asking for help with communication are really asking for help with conversation. In therapy I help couples practice having a dialogue to learn that it is not fatal to listen when you don’t agree.

A basic exercise comes from the Imago approach. It may seem artificial but it can be very powerful practiced slowly with therapist coaching. The basic ground rule is that only one person talks at a time and then there are 3 main steps


In the Mirroring step, when your partner pauses, or perhaps when you have asked them to pause, you will repeat back everything you heard them say.  You may paraphrase, but you will mirror without analyzing, critiquing, modifying or responding. 

How to Mirror:  “If I got it, I think you said…”  or “So you’re saying…” 

Ask if there’s more:  “Is there more?”  or “Tell me more.”


Once the Sender says there is “no more”, the Receiver will attempt to validate what the Sender has said by letting the Sender if what they have been saying is making logical sense to the Receiver.  If it does not, the Receiver will simply share what does make sense, then ask the Sender to say more about the parts that do not yet make sense.

How to Validate:  “You make sense to me because…”  or

“That makes sense, I can see where…”

Ask for clarification:  “This part (X) makes sense, but help me understand,

can you say more about…?”


In the final step, Empathy, the Receiver takes a guess as to what they imagine the Sender might be feeling with regard to what they have been saying.  If the Sender has already said how they feel, then the Receiver can simply reflect this back once more.  If, however, the Receiver can think of an additional way their partner might be feeling, this is where they can add that.

When sending empathy, it is fine to say something such as:  “I can imagine you feel like …. (you’re the only one working on our relationship).”  However, it’s important to know that once the word “like” comes into play, what’s being expressed is is a thought, not a feeling.  The best way we have come to distinguish the difference between a thought and a feeling, is that a feeling can generally be described in one or two words:  e.g., happy, excited, safe, cared for, hurt, frustrated, scared.

Try to include some “feeling” words if you can, in this step.  Doing so, especially when you are lucky enough to hit the proverbial nail on the head, will often bring a look of recognition and joy to your partner’s face faster than anything else you could say.

How to Empathize:  “I can imagine you might be feeling…”

Check it Out:  “Is that how you feel?”                                  


Now that the Sender has said all they have to say and the Receiver has mirrored, validated and empathized, the whole process reverses.  The Receiver now gets their turn to respond with whatever came up for them while the first partner was sending and the Sender shifts into being the new Receiver who does the mirroring, etc. 

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