Ellyn Bader

The Role of Differentiation in Collaborative Conversations


Using the Initiator-Inquirer™ Exercise is a Powerful Way to Promote Differentiation. The first section below describes the exercise in language you could use with clients. The final section makes a few points for you, the therapist.

The Initiator-Inquirer™ Exercise

Differentiation of self is the ability to identify and express important parts of yourself. It’s about telling your partner what you think, feel, want or desire. This can be scary because you are exposing important and sensitive aspects of yourself.

Differentiation from your partner is the ability to be curious about what your partner says while managing your own emotional reactions. It’s not easy to manage the reflex to “jump in and correct” their point of view.

This is much more than a communication tool. It is differentiation in action. Each person has to stretch to learn new ways of connecting. This is a communication structure that leads to enormous personal growth.

Tasks for the “Initiator” role: Express yourself

You need to manage the stress that comes from “exposing” what you think and feel and what might come from that.

First, ask your partner if he/she is ready. Bring up one specific topic without getting thrown off course, and without blaming or accusing. Try to get to the more sensitive feelings underneath the more superficial ones. This is not just about informing your partner. It’s also about discovering more about yourself.

Tasks for the “Inquirer” role: Listen to your partner

Stay involved, close, curious, and connected without “fixing” the problem, shutting down, interrupting, joking, eye rolling, or defending yourself. You don’t need to agree while listening to your partner’s perspective. Do try to understand them better (kind of like a journalist might conduct an interview). This is a chance for you to practice being the patient and attentive listener you want to be!

This process will help you learn:

  • that it is normal for you to have several conflicting feelings at the same time
  • that it is okay when your partner “falls apart” sometimes, without this being “the end of the world”
  • what each partner’s true views and wishes are, without the dialog spinning out of control
  • to respond to your partner as a person independent from you and your needs
  • to be patient when listening to a problem when you believe you already know the answer
  • to accept that your partner sees and does things differently
  • not to compromise too quickly but to tolerate tension in order to find a solution that genuinely works for both of you.

Additional All-Purpose Questions for an Inquirer to Ask

  • What is the strongest feeling you have about this issue?
  • If you could have one key desire met concerning this issue, what would it be?
  • Ideally, what would you want from me to make progress or resolve this issue?
  • You seem to feel quite strongly about xxx, why is that?
  • What do you mean by uncomfortable?
  • What is your degree of urgency to create a resolution to this issue?
  • What are the consequences if no progress is made on this issue?
  • When does this issue seem to keep popping up?
  • I am starting to feel blamed, it would help me a lot to hear more about how this issue effects you and why it is more about you than me.


Growth happens when partners break down,
regroup and stretch themselves to do more.

Common Breakdowns in the Initiator

  • Not identifying or articulating significant feelings
  • Being unable to hold onto desires and giving up self too fast
  • Bringing up too many issues in one conversation
  • Blaming and focusing on the other rather than exploring of self
  • Demanding a merged response
  • Common Breakdowns in the Inquirer Role
  • Getting defensive, self-referencing and not holding the role
  • Asking questions that have more to do with self than other
  • Problem solving or fixing
  • Projecting and operating from projection
  • Under-developed ability to self validate and self soothe
  • Low ability to access empathy

To learn more about our online training program, go to www.couplesinstitutetraining.com/DevelopmentalModel

The Initiator-Inquirer™ cards shown above are very helpful for couples who are learning to use this process. They are available for purchase here.

Thanks for your interest in our work,

Pete and Ellyn

After you have reviewed the information on Collaborative Conversations, you might want to explore the other resources we have available at www.couplesinstitute.com.


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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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.