Creating fulfilling relationships

Working Successfully Through Difficult Dialogues

A Structured Dialogue Process for Working Through Challenging Issues

Inspired by Restorative Circles –

This process is designed to build understanding and collaboration while working through important or difficult issues. Practice it with easier issues so that it is easier to learn. This process works best when you are as interested in the other’s needs as you are your own.

Important Points

  1. Schedule a time that works for both of you to give your full attention to each other. Talking through difficult things is an essential part of building successful relationships, so make it a priority. A great deal of trust, resilience, security, and collaboration is built from working through difficult things. Avoiding difficult issues weakens relationships.
  1. Stick with one issue at a time—work through one issue to the end of the process before going on to another one.
  1. Agree on how much time you will take. If it turns out that the agreed-upon length of time is not enough to work through the issue, schedule another time to continue the dialogue.
  1. Use a timer. This may seem rigid, but I recommend it. A timer will free you from thinking about time, and it will support you to maintain good boundaries.
  1. Each time you come together to do this process, read over the steps below before you begin until you have it down pat.
  1. Stick to the process as outlined below. You may decide, at some point, to alter the process to better suit your needs, but I would wait until you have mastered it as it is before doing that.
  1. People sometimes like to joke with each other when working through difficult issues, sometimes just for fun, sometimes as a way to ease tension they are feeling, and sometimes as a way to slip in something they want to say. I recommend refraining from joking unless it is your turn to speak. In other words, while you are in the listener role, I strongly encourage you to stick to saying back what you are hearing from the speaker and not to slip in jokes or humorous things, or anything else. Even though jokes may be lighthearted attempts to ease tension or build connection, they often compromise the trust and ease you build together by sticking to an agreed-upon process.
  1. Have a copy of this process in front of you—either printed out or open on your computer—so that you can refer to it when you need to. If either of you thinks you’re lost or getting off track, simply pause the process and refer to the steps. Refrain from judging and blaming each other for getting off track. Instead, say something to the effect of, “I think we’re veering from the process, I’d like to check the handout to see where we are.”
  1. If one party becomes too triggered to stay with the process, call a pause and do an agreed-upon process for calming. For example, focus on breathing slowing and deeply, name the sensations in your body, name your needs (keep a needs list close by), hug or lean against each other or hold hands. Co-create a pause process that works for both of you. Make sure you are both clear on what your pause process is before you begin. Sometimes, taking physical space and trying again another time is necessary. However, using a pause process helps transform beliefs that conflict leads to or necessitates separation.

The Dialogue Process

Items needed: This handout; a needs list; and a notepad for writing down the action plan.

1. Agree on the issue you will discuss.

2. Someone volunteers to listen first. This person is Listener 1The other person is Speaker 1.

Round 1: Speaker 1 is Understood by Listener 1.

3. The Speaker tells the Listener what she wants him to know about the issue. Speak two or three sentences at a time. Speak in short chunks so the Listener can take it in and reflect it back.

 If the Speaker is saying more than the Listener can take it, the Listener interrupts and says something like, “Hang on a second, I’d like to tell you what I’ve heard so far.”

4.The Listener says back to the Speaker what he has heard so far. Say it as closely as you can to how the Speaker said it. Don’t try to say it in a different way. Don’t worry if you don’t remember it all. When you are done, say, “Is that it?” If you think you missed something, that’s completely fine. Simply say, “Did I miss anything,” and then reflect back whatever the speaker tells you was missed.

Each time the speaker says something, the Listener reflects it back. Don’t leave words un-reflected.

Continue with steps 3 and 4 above until the first Speaker is satisfied she’s been understood. Do not change roles until she is.  Once the first Speaker is satisfied she’s been understood, round 1 is complete. If the Listener is truly struggling to wait for his turn, he can say something to the effect of, “I could really use a turn to speak. Are you willing to listen for a while and then we’ll come back to you speaking and me listening?”

Round 2: Speaker 2 Understood by Listener 2.

Repeat steps 3 and 4 in Round 1 with the roles reversed. Once rounds 1 and 2 are complete, check to see if either of you have more you would like to say before moving on to Round 3. If there is more, do another round and follow the same steps.

Round 3. The Action Plan.

Each person refers to a needs list and finds the needs you have in regards to the issue.

Each person offers a proposal of what either or both of you could do to meet the needs that both of you have in regards to this issue:

“I have an idea; I could do______________. What do you think?”

“I have an idea; you could do_________________. What do you think?”

“I have an idea, I could do___________and you could do______________. What do you think?”

Be specific! What exactly is going to happen? When is it going to happen? Who is going to be the one to do it?

Write it down and read it together so that there is no disagreeing about what you each thought was going to happen.

Working through difficult dialogues can be extremely challenging. If you are unable to successfully work something through, I suggest finding someone—a counselor, mediator, NVC trainer or facilitator—to help you.

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