Challenging Choice Points for Using the Initiator-Inquirer Process

This month's newsletter 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 videotape on the subject. “Neutralize the Anger: Help Couples Stop Fighting and Start Talking” teaches and demonstrates this process that is one of our most widely used techniques. For more information or to order, click  Neutralize the Anger.

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

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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