Many couples keep trying to do what doesn’t work: Talking over each other trying to get through.


You either keep arguing or eventually one or both of you shut down because it’s not worth the fight anymore.


In an argument, each person goes back and forth reiterating their point of view, stuck in a cycle of contradiction and invalidation:


“I understand that, but here’s my point of view.”

“I know, but you just don’t get...”

“I didn’t say that, what I’m trying to say is...”

“I know, but what I’m trying to say is...”

(to infinity and beyond!)


One person speaks, the other reacts and you’re off to the races, reacting, reacting, reacting, reacting.


Memory is faulty and so is perception. So, conversation becomes a tangled mess when you go back and forth in Parallel Monologue form.


It’s like two people speaking at each other with megaphones.


You need a different way. A way out of the cycle of exhaustingly painful back and forth, of misperception and reaction.


So, let’s start at the beginning.


Why does anyone speak?

Because they want to be understood.


The good news is both of you want to be understood, you just need a different way to speak and listen that’s conducive to being understood.


We can break this repetitive cycle of conflict with 5 practices (read in the next section why you might resist trying something new):


1) Notice in the moment when you disagree or are triggered then change your style of conversation from Parallel Monologue to Empathic Dialogue.

2) Take turns being the Listener and the Speaker.

3) Set a timer for each role so you know when your turn and role begins and ends.

4) As the Listener, practice demonstrating your understanding to your partner.

5) Slow down and work as a team to understand each other in bite size chunks.


This might seem like a simple task, but it’s much easier said than done so I’ll explain why:


You might have resistance to this process for several reasons:


A) You think you shouldn’t need to speak differently than normal everyday conversation. You resist any kind of structure just to get through to your partner. Processes like this are silly or should be unnecessary.


B) It feels awkward or mechanical and you just want to free flow.


C) You assume that if you validate your partner’s perspective they’re right and you’re wrong. Your partner’s point of view threatens your own, so you resist understanding them fully.


D) You assume if you validate your partner’s perspective, you’ll somehow perpetuate the behaviour you don’t like or give them power in some way.


E) You want to be heard but you don’t want to hear your partner, or you feel unsafe to hear your partner.


Do you have any other resistance?


If so, ask yourself why. Dig deep. Journal about it. Talk with friends. Get to the bottom of it. Why are you committed to using a method of communication that doesn’t work? What are you afraid of?


Can you see that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results doesn’t work?


Here’s what we’re up against: Habit, perception and reactivity keep us stuck.


Habit – The pain you know is better than the pleasure you don’t know. You’ve formed neural pathways that are painful, yet familiar, so in a way you get addicted to drama. You choose what’s easy over what works.


Perception – You don’t hear each other correctly. Your partner says one thing, you hear another; you both take offence as a result of perceiving a threat that doesn’t exist. There’s no real danger, you’re defending you identification with your belief systems which inhibits your ability to empathize.


Reactivity – You both listen more to your own internal reactions and automatic thoughts rather than what’s actually being said. As a result you lack presence and cannot hold space for a conscious response. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl learned,


“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And I’ll add in this space that we can actively cultivate lies our ability to empathize, to consider different and opposing perspectives without defensiveness.


It takes effort to create a new normal. So, in order to create these new communication habits, you need to be consistent. In order to be consistent, you have to see how what you’ve been doing doesn’t work, or simply doesn’t feel good. Then you can give these new practices a chance to shift from awkward to second nature.


This is a pivotal aspect of human nature: We often have to be done, fed up, exhausted and in enough pain that we’re almost forced to change!


You never have to wait that long, but that’s often what it takes to move a human being out of their old familiar ways and into something new. You get to choose: participate or resist.


Alright, are you ready?


Let’s break down the 5 practices which form the structure of an Empathic Dialogue:


1) Notice in the moment when you disagree or are triggered then change your style of conversation from Parallel Monologue to Empathic Dialogue.


I invite you to cultivate self-awareness when you or your partner reiterate your point of view. Any time you reiterate or seek to clarify your point of view, that’s an indicator that you feel unheard. It’s your cue to shift to an Empathic Dialogue. Anytime you notice tension in your body or feel unsafe to speak or listen are also good cues. Disagreements and triggers are more overt indicators that it’s time to shift to an Empathic Dialogue, but if you heighten your awareness to notice the subtle reiterations and clarifications in conversation, you can avoid conflict altogether.


The faster you can shift to giving and receiving intentionally through the roles of Listener/Paraphraser and Speaker, the faster you’ll avoid miscommunication and escalating conflict.


Remember, “A riot is the language of the unheard” said Martin Luther King Jr. The only reason you raise your voice is because your partner is not demonstrating understanding through validation, paraphrasing or mirroring. (See point 4).


2) Take turns being the Listener and the Speaker.


Two Speakers is not an effective way to have a conversation, particularly if you have opposing perspectives or you disagree. That might seem obvious when I write it here, but it’s not so obvious when you’re reacting to each other on autopilot trying to speak over-top of each other.


Embodying one role at a time ensures there is a give-receive relationship. The Listener drinks in the Speaker’s words. The Listener is an empty vessel, putting themselves and their point of view aside for a period of time to listen with the same passion as they want to be heard.


When you jump out of your role as the Listener and interrupt the Speaker you shift back into Parallel Monologue style of conversation and prioritize you being heard over your partner. Remember, you will have your turn to receive the same attention and understanding to be heard to your satisfaction.


Resist the impulse to interrupt, clarify or defend your point of view. Remember Viktor Frankl’s quote and work to cultivate space within you, self-awareness that allows you to witness your automatic thoughts without reacting.


This isn’t about you. You have to be able to hold space for your reactions in order to hear your partner. Breathe. Pay more attention to your partner rather than giving your attention to your internal reactions and believing the stories in your head. When both partners do this, you give yourselves a chance to experience mutual understanding. This is the practice of equality and mutuality in action.


3) Set a timer for each role so you know when your turn and role begins and ends.


Think of a timer as training wheels. It won’t be needed forever once you get the hang of the process. Eventually, you’ll be able to intentionally take turns in each role fluidly without interrupting each other with defensiveness or clarification. At first, many couples try to get away without using a timer and things go off the rails quickly!


Setting a timer can seem like a little much, but it’s one of the most underestimated tools you can use to ensure each of you stays safe and moves towards mutual understanding.


Think of it in terms of visiting each other’s island. You’re on an island and your partner is on an island. You can’t explore each other’s islands at the same time. The timer ensures each of you spends equal time on each other’s island. It’s an invitation to explore your partner’s island (even if you don’t like it) for a short period of time with the assurance that there is an end to what might be an uncomfortable experience of seeing reality from a different angle.


A timer creates a beginning and ending to each role - what we can call a “container for being heard”. It keeps the Speaker safe from being interrupted and the Listener safe from being overloaded and having to listening ad nauseam.


This structure, like sides to a river bed, is a beautiful support that opens up the opportunity to flow. Like riding a bike with training wheels, you don’t have to worry about falling over, the structure holds you and keeps you safe so you can relax and experience mutual understanding.


4) As the Listener, practice demonstrating your understanding to your partner.


It’s not enough to smile and nod or say, “I understand, I’m with you, I get it.” Remember, perception and memory are unreliable. There are always gaps in our communication but they often go unnoticed until we’re in conflict. Sharing what you heard your partner say, gives them a chance to clarify if you heard them correctly.


Instead of assuming you heard your partner correctly, try assuming that you didn’t understand them. From this place of humility, you can begin to engage your partner with curiosity, with a desire to create shared reality rather than assuming you know what their island looks like.


You can demonstrate your understanding in 3 ways:


A) Paraphrasing – Share what you understood from your partner. Don’t worry about getting it right, just share back what you heard them say in your own words, then ask, “Did I get that right?” Paraphrasing combined with checking assumptions is the simplest way to eliminate misunderstanding. Continue paraphrasing until your partner feels completely heard to their satisfaction or until the timer has ended. You might need to set multiple 5-minute timers and go back and forth for several rounds. Stick with the process the whole time and don’t try and get away without using it!


B) Mirroring – When all hell breaks loose, revert to mirroring. That means repeating back what you heard your partner say with as little interpretation as possible. (Read the next point 5 to help you be successful with this). If you were to video record you and your partner, you’d begin to see how each of you continues to make different meaning from what you actually said. Mirroring is designed to eliminate as much misunderstanding as possible because unlike paraphrasing, you repeat back word for word what you heard. It can feel painful unnecessary and slow at first, but it’ll be worth your time and effort if you stick with it and take turns.


C) Validating / Empathy – This tool takes it to the next level. It is the ultimate soother of nervous systems. When you both get this tool right, you will be master co-regulators and humble learners and explorers of each other’s islands.


In order for you to feel safe to validate your partner’s perspective, you have to understand that you can both be right and both have valid points of view. Valid refers to the fact that each of your voices and stories matter. In other words, you’re not in competition. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, but rather collaboration: What do we have to learn from each other? You both have co-responsibility for changing the dynamic of your relationship.


To validate your partner’s perspective, you need to leave your island and go visit their island. Validation is empathy in action. In order to validate your partner you have to metaphorically you’re stepping into their shoes. This is called perspective-taking, it’s done through the use of your imagination, “How did the way they experienced reality make complete sense to them?”


For those new to it, it can seem extremely and even painfully difficult to truly, wholeheartedly see through the eyes and ears of your partner when in disagreement. To be able to speak as them, think as them, feel as them; to see yourself from another angle; maybe even acknowledge how you were a part of hurting them is challenging at first. We don’t want to see that. We protect ourselves from seeing that our view of reality is actually quite small, righteous, flawed and simply not the whole picture. This is why perspective-taking combined with validation are so hard, especially in conflict. Remember, seeing things another way doesn’t make you wrong, quite the opposite:


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Here's what validation sounds like,


“If I were you, I would have felt / thought_______ too because _______.”


“It makes sense that you felt / thought ______ too because _______.”


Validate each thought and emotion separately with a reason why the thought or feeling makes sense.


For example:


“If I were you, I would have felt angry because...”


“If I were you, I would have felt hurt because...”


“If I were you, I would have felt disrespected because...”


“If I were you, I would have felt unseen because...”


Check out a nonviolent communication “feelings and needs list” to expand your emotional literacy and needs consciousness.


But it’s not just about saying the words and going through the motions mechanically. You’ve got to speak the words from true understanding. Can you actually see? If not, you need to get more curious. If you don’t understand fully yet, ask more questions. Keep asking until something clicks inside you and you get it. You’ll likely cry when this happens because you feel connected; you’ve bridged the gap between self and other.


This is the ultimate putting someone else before yourself that is the essence of empathy and connection. Guy Sengstock, Founder of the Circling Institute said,


"I believe: the deepest way you can love somebody is to be willing to FULLY go on their ride. To listen to them so deeply that - through your listening - they gain deeper insight into their own experience."

I agree. Listening and validating someone’s perspective can feel like death to your ego. Listening is vulnerable. You’re opening up to a point of view that threatens your identity. Your identification with your beliefs is what forms what you call reality.


Validation and empathy stretch us. I think this is the beauty of partnership: It doesn’t let us stay in our small world of protection mechanisms and limiting beliefs.


5) Slow down and work as a team to understand each other in bite size chunks.


Work as a team to be heard to your satisfaction. Here’s what I recommend. Set a 5 minute timer. Choose who’s the Listener and who’s the Speaker.


As the Speaker, share a few thoughts or sentences, then pause to allow the Listener to paraphrase wheat they heard so far to make sure they’re with you. It’s important to not overload your partner by trying to get across too much at once.


As the Listener, don’t try and repeat back everything you heard, just the essence, the core of what you personally understood. It’s not about getting it right and it’s not about the quantity of what you paraphrase. Focus on your curiosity and desire to be on the same page.


After the Listener paraphrases, they should check their assumption, “Did I get that right?”


The Speaker now has a chance to continue sharing or clarify anything the Listener didn’t understand. It’s up to both of you to really hone in on the essence of what you want to get across. If you wanted your partner to really understand one thing, what would that be?


Go back and forth in bite sized chunks until the timer is finished then switch turns.


If there is quite a bit of tension or misunderstanding, keep the shares short. You have to slow down to work as a team. The Speaker can share 1- 2 sentences max, then have the Listener mirror or paraphrase that small chunk.


As you get better at flowing within this structure it will feel more fluid, less restrictive and even liberating and nourishing because you are experiencing mutual understanding. Eventually you won’t have to be so slow or deliberate and can share larger chunks of information at a time. Paraphrasing will become second nature to you. It’s a new way to listen that puts the focus on understanding rather than reacting.


Conclusion


I’ve gone into great detail to explain the pitfalls of an extremely simple process: Taking turns listening and paraphrasing.


Leonardo Da Vinci said,


“Simplicity is the greatest sophistication.”

What you’re up against in creating mutual understanding isn’t your partner, it’s your ego: a conglomeration of self-reenforcing fear-based protection mechanisms that we mistake as our identity.


What are we really defending? Is it worth it? When it comes to partnership, you’ve agreed to be on the same team, so the process of an Empathic Dialogue gives you a way to put teamwork, effective communication and the values of equality, inclusion, diversity, mutuality, fairness, justice and respect into action.