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The Imago Intentional Dialogue

Imago Intentional Dialogue – Basic Concepts and Explanation of Skills

By John DeMarco M.Ed., LPC

Basic Concepts

The Imago Intentional Dialogue is a powerful method of healing hurting relationships and helping couples to be reattached in love. It is the main technique used in Imago Relationship Therapy, a type of couples therapy developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide For Couples. This article includes my innovations.

The best way to learn how to use the dialogue method is to be coached by a licensed therapist trained in Imago Therapy. The purpose of this article is to help you and your partner use the intentional dialogue at home.

Two types of dialogues are explained—problem focused and general.

An intentional dialogue, sometimes referred to as the couples’ dialogue, is not a discussion. In a discussion two people express their thoughts and opinions back and forth with each other. In an intentional dialogue one person speaks about what is on his or her mind and the other listens. The listener mirrors back, meaning restates what the other said, without adding comments or opinions.

In a dialogue you focus on the process of your relationship, not your problems. Problems in a relationship develop due to a dysfunctional relationship process. How you and your partner behave toward one another is a process, which is driven by communication. Your relationship process either causes your problems or prevents problems. For this reason the Imago dialogue focuses on your relationship process.  Fixing the process enables you to fix your problems.

The dialogue is a structured way of communicating. At first it may seem awkward using it to communicate, but staying in the structure is vital to making it safe for both you and your partner to communicate. Safe means neither feels attacked or judged. It is called an intentional dialogue because you both are intentional to make it safe for your partner to both talk and listen. That means you will not be judgmental, belittling, or express anger during dialogues. It also means you are intentional about giving your partner your full attention as a demonstration of caring.

The theory behind the Imago dialogue is that understanding one another brings healing and changes in both of you. The dialogue emphasizes giving and receiving deep empathy. Empathy is emotional oxygen for relationships, and empathy will help you and your partner become reattached in love.

In an Imago dialogue one partner is the sender and the other is the receiver. Each partner takes a turn being sender and receiver, and your therapist coaches you as you do. The sender talks about a problem or anything else related to his or her experience. The receiver listens and then mirrors back what was heard. Mirroring simply means saying back to your partner his or her words. Essentially the sender is giving a report and the receiver is listening to it. Because it is a report no questions are asked. Asking questions is judgmental and will make your partner feel investigated and blamed. And asking questions makes the dialogue feel unsafe for your partner.

I think the essence of the intentional dialogue is best expressed by this comment:

“Mirror my feelings even though you don’t agree with them. Let me know you understand what I’m trying to say.”

In order to help the sender communicate his or her experience and feelings at a deep level, he or she completes sentence stems. The following are the basic sentence stems used in a problem focused dialogue:

1. I want to talk to you about… Is now ok?

2. What I am concerned about is…

3. When that happens what I am afraid of is… or, when that happened what I became afraid of was…

4. Concerning that what hurts me is… or, how that hurts me is…

5. What those feelings remind me of from my childhood is…

6. When I was a child I learned to cope and protect myself by…

7. It would be helpful and healing if you would…

Typical topics for problem focused dialogues include: a problem affecting your relationship, your fears in the relationship, changes you want to see in your partner, and past wounds.

Couples in therapy engage in problem focused dialogues because of the healing nature of those dialogues. But general dialogues are also effective for strengthening relationships. Topics for general dialogues can be anything that interests you, not just problems and complaints. You can even do appreciation dialogues, for example: “One thing I appreciate about you is…”

Dialoguing at Home

You can use the intentional dialogue at home if both of you learn the basic concepts and develop and strictly adhere to the skills needed to do a dialogue. Make a commitment to each other to unconditionally respect any and all of each other’s requests for a dialogue. Above all, respect the structure of the dialogue process. Without adherence to its structure the dialogue process will not be safe and it will not work. It is suggested that the best approach is to first learn how to do the dialogue by working with a therapist trained in Imago Relationship Therapy.

Skill for Both Sender and Receiver

Non-verbal Behavior—People communicate more with their body language than with the actual meaning of their words. Keeping your non-verbal behaviors in check is a skill you need to use whenever you do an intentional dialogue. Such behaviors as judgmental facial expressions, like smirking and rolling your eyes, will make your partner feel judged or attacked. So will raising your voice, as well as any critical body gestures. During a dialogue pay attention to your non-verbal expressions, making sure they are not judgmental. [continued...]