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In this Imago Africa blog, we discuss the question we are asked most often: “What do you do if your partner doesn’t… (do any imaginable thing!). or “What if you are married to someone who is… (any imaginable bad trait or behavior).” In the past we have responded to these questions with answers addressed to the specifics. But we found that whatever specifics we responded to, the pattern was always the same. The answer was, “Stay in the process“.

So what is the process? It is IMAGO DIALOGUE.

There are no enlightened answers to any question or clever solutions to any problem. Questions and problems are all functions of ruptured connection. Partners experience anxiety, stop listening, and become defensive. Polarisation occurs and the impasse is strengthened. The only way out of this quagmire is the Dialogue process with its three parts: mirroring, validating and empathising.

The process of Dialogue is something like a canoe on a lake. Two people are paddling, one in the back and one in the front. They have their strokes coordinated and are gliding smoothly over the lake. The wind comes up. What do you do? Keep paddling. If one stops, the canoe will turn sideways to the wind and possibly tip over. The waves get higher. What do you do? Turn into the waves and keep paddling, using the smooth strokes you used before the turbulence arose. If one stops paddling or comments on how the other is paddling, the canoe will turn sideways into the wave and probably flip over. Both paddlers will get wet. This is a metaphor of most fights. However, if both persons keep paddling just as they did when the lake was placid, but with the added effort needed because of the wind and the wave, they will keep the canoe afloat and probably stay dry. The moral of this image is “keep paddling and stay in the canoe, no matter what comes up.”

Whatever comes up in a relationship should be responded to with the Dialogue process. If your partner criticizes you, mirror back. If she expresses a frustration, mirror back. If there is a discharge of anger, mirror back. When he is sharing about feeling overwhelmed, mirror back. When she is talking about advancing her career, mirror back. Listen deeply, mirror (“Let me see if I’ve got it. You said…”), invite more (“Is there more about that?”), check for accuracy (“Did I get it?)”, follow through with validating (“You make sense, and what makes sense is….”) and empathising (“And I can imagine you feel…”). If you do that, no matter what comes up, you will stay out of the power struggle and avoid the impasse. And with repeated use over time, your relationship will change from dangerous to safe, from polarising to connecting. And then you will have the relationship of your dreams.

The ideal situation is this: Dialogue is used ALL the time, so that when the storms come, the skill is honed and keeps you from tipping the canoe into the lake and getting wet. So, whatever happens, whatever comes up between you and your partner, STAY IN THE CANOE AND PADDLE.

Credit: Harville and Helen Hendrix

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