The goal of the process is to shift a couple from an angry, mutually reactive stance to a calm, accepting, listening one. Being the receiver, learning to mirror what the other is saying in a neutral and accepting manner, and learning to validate and empathize, possibly activates the same areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, as mindful meditation does. Learning to stay grounded and focused on your partner’s words even when every fiber of your body wants to shout, “Stop! I don’t want to hear that. That’s not true. That’s not how it was. You’ve got it all wrong!” constitutes a powerful meditative practice. Structure brings safety.
Here’s an Imago Dialogue we had recently. The first thing that happens is that the speaker makes an appointment. It’s important to make an appointment so that both parties in the dialogue will be able to stay in the structure. As we were walking together, Francine said, “I’d like to have an Imago Dialogue. Is this a good time for you?”
This set her up as the speaker and allowed me to take a moment to center myself and move into a listening mode. Frequently, a couple sits facing each other. We usually dialogue while walking side by side or driving in the car.
“This is a good time for me,” I said.
Once the dialogue has begun, the first stage is mirroring, in which one partner describes why he or she is upset, and the other mirrors what he or she has heard. Francine began by saying, “I’d like to talk about your taking ‘a day off’ from me in Paris last week.”
I mirrored what she said: “You’d like to talk about my taking a day off from you in Paris last week.”
I repeated what Francine said word for word, only reversing the pronouns, so that she could remain calm, knowing what the “immediate-next-of-now” would be. This structure is what keeps her feeling safe. It’s often tempting for the “receiver” of the message to change what he or she has heard, subtly reinterpreting what the speaker has said, or using “better” words. But this only makes the “immediate-next-of-now” unpredictable and the speaker feel unsafe. Clients are taught to give a hand signal—raising a hand if they’re sitting and facing each other, or gently squeezing the other’s hand if they’re on a walk—to ask the speaker to pause so the partner can mirror word for word.
“I really felt awful. I felt punished,” Francine continued. I squeezed her hand to signal a pause. “You really felt awful. You felt punished,” I repeated.
From there on, we continued the dialogue in which Francine made her points, punctuated by my hand squeezes to slow the process down enough to enable me to genuinely hear and mirror everything she said. The gist of her upset was that by going off by myself for a day, I’d made her feel that I was always choosing the agenda and, on this particular day, was punishing her for not wanting to do exactly what I wanted to do.
Born and raised in France, Francine added at this point, “You aren’t the king of France, you know. We got rid of kings long ago.” A little later, she started crying and added, “I felt chastised like a child.” The feeling brought back memories of her unhappy childhood with a highly punitive, blaming mother, she said. “Several times, she said she was going to kill me and kill herself, and we’d both go to hell, and it’d be my fault!” Francine explained. Now she felt it was hard for her to trust me—she didn’t know what I’d done all that day. I squeezed her hand after each remark and mirrored back exactly what she said.
Later, after Francine had been silent for a moment, I asked, “Is there anything more you’d like to say about this?” When she answered, “No, not for now,” we proceeded to the first step of the next stage: validation, in which I summarized what she’d told me and asked whether I’d gotten it right. When Francine said I had, I continued, “I follow what you said. Your perspective is important and valuable to me, and you make sense.”
During the next stage, empathy, I said, “I imagine you might have felt angry, abandoned, and betrayed about this. Is that what you were feeling?”
Francine said, “Yes, I was feeling angry, abandoned, and betrayed. Right now, I’m feeling heard and calm,”—words that I mirrored once again. I concluded by saying, “Those feelings make sense to me. I can see how you might feel that way.”