Here is Your Additional Information on Collaborative Conversations

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

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

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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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