Challenging Choice Points for Using the Initiator-Inquirer Process

This article is specifically for you if you use the Initiator-Inquirer process in your work with couples. The Initiator-Inquirer helps partners repair emotional upset while increasing the differentiation in each partner.

Often the therapist is confronted with challenging choice points about which partner to focus on, when it is impossible to work deeply with both partners in a single session.

Common choice points are:

  1. Do I work more actively with the Initiator or the Inquirer when both are emotionally distressed?
  2. When has an emotional upset occurred for too long in the room? When must the therapist take over for the inquirer?
  3. Does the initiating partner experience the inquiring partner as a curious, interested or empathic listener about the emotional upset or is the inquiring partner experienced as being aversive in the here and now? Does this need to change first for any progress to occur?
  4. How quickly do I move towards repairing a painful interaction? Would exploration of the roots of the distress be more meaningful than quick repair? Will aiming to create a good feeling be premature? Will it occur at the expense of deepening the client's self awareness?
  5. If I move towards empathy and repair, can I use the repair process as a way of increasing either partner's differentiation?
  6. What is the best way to help partners confront their own dysfunctional behavior directly with a desire to change it into more constructive behavior the next time?

This month I will describe some helpful general principles for you to use to decide which choice to make.

When starting Initiator-Inquirer work in any session, first be sure each partner has agreed to participate and is aware of the expectations of their role. It is helpful for partners to realize that this process will enable them to resolve stressful interactions between them without escalating into unproductive and heightened emotional intensity. Over time they will become more effective at home and be better able to solve more complex problems, while disengaging from emotionally volatile exchanges.

It is also important that the inquiring partner recognize that their role is facilitative. They will not be “getting needs met” while inquiring. In fact, they are a helper. As such, the more they demonstrate openness, compassion, interest and involvement, the better the process will go. The role of the Inquirer is difficult because it requires the listening partner to ask effective questions and search for points of agreement and empathy, while putting their own frustrations on hold.

Once a couple has started to work in the Initiator-Inquirer format, the therapist listens intently. Your goal is to facilitate the couple working together as long as possible in a positive direction that will repair the current upset or help prevent future unnecessary upsets. You will intervene to keep the conversation moving in a positive direction. Positive outcomes include:

  1. The Initiator feeling calmer and being understood
  2. The Initiator understanding why the issue is such an emotional trigger for them
  3. The Inquirer developing new insight into emotional triggers for their partner
  4. The Inquirer stretching themselves to have more empathy or compassion

As the Initiator begins, listen to be sure their statement of the problem is clear. Are they expressing emotions directly? Are they making a specific request of the Inquirer? Give them a chance to express themselves and to muddle along for a short while.

Hopefully, the Inquirer will ask questions for clarification. If the Initiator does not stumble into clarity, and the Inquirer does not intervene, it is time for you to come in and ask the Initiator to re-focus and to re-center themselves on one issue. You also might ask the Inquirer to formulate a question to gain more clarity about what the Initiator is requesting.

If the inquiring partner gives off negative nonverbal cues of impatience, hostility or disinterest, you must work with them first. If they are not emotionally present or showing some curiosity, the session can not proceed productively. In fact, the Inquirer actually becomes an aversive stimulus in the here and now, which only makes the problem worse. You must intervene with this partner first. It is not the Initiator's job to help the Inquirer.

This is a place for the therapist to be a strong advocate for constructive process. If the Inquirer is emotionally unavailable, you will work one on one with them to uncover what is preventing them from being available. Sometimes they are too emotionally aroused themselves and need time to calm down. Sometimes they feel “so wronged” by the other that they will not be able to inquire without first initiating on the same topic. Whatever their reasons are, work actively with this partner until they become emotionally available for interpersonal process. Until this occurs, having the couple talk to each other in the Initiator-Inquirer format will only make things worse and take longer to repair.

If you don't already use the Initiator-Inquirer process, you might be interested in our most popular course, The Change Lab: Immediate Impact with the Initiator-Inquirer.


  • A treasure trove of training video pared down to 2 hours
  • 4+ hours of effective demonstrations with commentary
  • 10 of our most popular handouts including: Structuring Effective Initiation, The Initiator & Inquirer Continuums, Common Misconceptions During the I-I, Questions for a Difficult Conversation, and more! Historically, the only way to get these handouts is to be part of my $1,500 couples therapy training program. But today, you’ll get all 10 handouts when you enroll in The Change Lab. (On sale now until June 5 at 38% off.)

Good luck with your own use of the Initiator-Inquirer process. And remember, you can always email us brief questions or share your results in the comments below.

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Andre Lampa
Andre Lampa

Thanks for this, Ellyn.
This sentence got me thinking: “Sometimes they feel “so wronged” by the other that they will not be able to inquire without first initiating on the same topic.”
I find this very common in hostile dependent individuals. As “the victim”, there is this constant vying for the initiator role. Attending to them means, if they can’t inquire, asking them to defer speaking; if they don’t have curiosity, saying that I do (demonstrating the inquiring); if they can’t stay quiet, getting them to speak from their vulnerable feelings rather than their harsh thoughts. But this only works if the other partner is willing to listen, and doesn’t feel the initiator role has been hijacked from them.
I got a new idea last week for a couple on the brink, which is that the relationship can only exist or continue with consent. And communication only occurs if there is someone who is willing to listen when you want to speak. I declared an experiment in “consensual communication”. I wrote the rules up and sent them to both partners in advance of the session, and then read them aloud at the start of the session. (For simplicity, I use the term speaker rather than initiator, and listener rather than inquirer.)
In essence, I said that the speaker is responsible for moderating themselves sufficiently to retain the ongoing consent of the listener at every moment. I only permit the speaker say one carefully chosen sentence at a time, and then I coach and wait for the listener to give their best one-sentence response of validation, empathy, curiosity, or at least compassion. Only then does the speaker get an opportunity to speak another carefully chosen sentence. If the listener at any point didn’t want to listen further, and couldn’t offer any of those four, they could move away from the conversation, and I would become the backup listener (at that point coaching the initiator to consider how they might have helped their speaking opportunity to continue.) By adding this really rigorous structure, the beginning of a dialog became possible.
(If any I-I practitioner wants to see what I wrote, feel free to contact me privately. I want to set up a group of colleagues to do case consultations.)

ellyn bader
ellyn bader

Andre-What I like is the strong leadership position you are taking.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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