Ellyn Bader

…Transferring Initiator-Inquirer Skills Learned in Therapy Sessions to Home

We love getting questions and comments from our readers. This month we will answer a wonderful question that came from Heather in San Diego about helping couples achieve better communication between sessions.

Heather asked: “I am successful in getting couples to do the Initiator-Inquirer in sessions, but not as successful at getting them to do the Initiator-Inquirer outside the four walls of my office. Do you have any thoughts/suggestions about how I am contributing to this and what I can do to help them push forward?”

Heather's question is a common one. Many couples do not like to practice the “I to I” outside of therapy. Some reasons for this are:
-They are afraid they will be ineffective and make things worse.
-They are conflict avoidant.
-They are busy and do not stop to make the time.
-They do not fully appreciate the value of developing these skills.
-They have not yet been successful in the office and know that they are even less likely to succeed at home.
-It is counter-intuitive for people to take turns during a stressful discussion. It is more natural to push one's own point of view and to compete to “get their needs met” first.

We have developed a number of strategies to help partners begin practicing the “I to I” process at home. An important caveat though is, please don't expect them to make the transition until they are having some success with you. Until they have some positive experiences with the process, they will not know or feel what it is like to get to a successful resolution for both partners.

Strategy #1, Use an audio recorder.
Ask them to record an “I to I” at home. Tell them to spend no more than 20 minutes on it and ask them to bring the recording to your next session. Tell them you will listen with them to identify the most effective parts and help them with the parts where either of them broke down in their roles. If you anticipate some resistance, you can tell them that if they don't do it, you will ask them to practice in the next session for the first twenty minutes.

Strategy #2, Break the “I to I” into very small parts and give mini-homework assignments.
For example, you can ask each partner to spend a week practicing Initiation skills. To do this, you might ask each partner to initiate by telling the other the issue they want to discuss in the next therapy session. This way they don't have to get into the content at home. This diminishes the anxiety of doing the “I to I” without you, but still pushes them to take risks in bringing up potentially stressful topics.

Another small “I to I” assignment is to have partners ask two questions anytime they feel tense in the interaction. An example might be:

Partner A says, “You never come home on time.”

Partner B asks, “When I come home late, what do you feel?” or “Are you afraid when I am late?” or “Do you think my being late is disrespectful of your time?”

All of these questions are designed to help the partner who feels criticized. Instead of a knee-jerk defensive response, they can learn to ask depersonalized questions.

Strategy #3, Do a positive Initiator-Inquirer.
The Initiator-Inquirer skills can be practiced on positive feelings and positive behaviors. You can ask the couple to go home and set aside two fifteen minute blocks each week. The partner who is the initiator is to tell the other something positive that they do or say that creates warm feelings. The inquirer is then instructed to ask questions to inquire more deeply into what is so positive and satisfying about what they do. Again these are de-personalized questions designed to understand the internal world of the initiator.

This is a strategy that is less stressful, and is therefore ideal for a couple who is just beginning to develop these skills or who is having an unusually difficult time with them.

Strategy #4, Use written questions.
We have developed a set of questions that are designed to increase inquiring skills. They are all-purpose questions for a listening partner to ask during a difficult discussion. The questions are given to the inquirer and this partner is asked to pick one at random and ask that question to the initiator.

This is a significant learning experience for many inquirers. They do not have to think so hard under pressure. The written questions give them an assist and also a learning experience. By asking these questions on an age-old fight, they glean new information and discover that they do not need to be on the hot seat when discussing a charged topic.

The questions are included in the workbook that comes with our “High Impact Couples Therapy” CD set. We demonstrate using them on the audio portion of the CD set. Obviously it would be overdoing it to purchase a CD set in order to get a set of questions, but in fact, the program is packed with material that helps you facilitate change with your couples. In this powerful resource, we delineate four pillars of relationship change: illuminating the partners' vision; changing the process for discussing highly charged issues; managing emotional reactivity under stress; and resolving intrapsychic conflicts. The result is a structure for all your interventions which allows your clients to change faster, with less conflict and greater positive momentum.

In case the CD set seems expensive, we like to remind people that it comes with an unusual guarantee. If you don't find it worth the money, in terms of your improved skills and your ability to help more couples for a longer period of time, we'll refund your money. And we give you a whole year to decide. If you'd like to see what else is covered in the set, visit High Impact Couples Therapy.

Lastly, Heather brought up a gutsy question when she asked if she could be contributing to the couple's resistance to practice at home. I have some questions for Heather and other therapists facing the same situation:
– Do you believe in the value of these skills? Are you convinced that couples who manage their emotional reactivity better will be more successful as parents and partners?
– If so, can you communicate your conviction to your clients in convincing ways?
– Can you think of personal examples and stories that you are comfortable telling about how these capacities have helped you?
– And finally, will you stand firmly behind any homework you give?

Heather, we wish you and all our readers continued success using these techniques. We know they are not easy, but we have seen the difference they make in people's lives.

About 

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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