Ellyn Bader

For this blog post, I am giving you part of a transcript from an Initiator-Inquirer session. It is about working with control struggles, improving couple’s communication, and what that means on a deeper level. This session was very rich in learning, so I am going to break it down into several posts. I’d like you to comment on what you see me doing and on anything you learn from reading this portion of the session. Then in a later mailing I will give you the next section.

Vicky and Tom have been married for eight years and in business together for two years. He is 36 and she is 37. They came to therapy because they had been fighting, power struggling and getting nowhere on their own. This session began with Tom being very angry. I listened to each of them for a few minutes and then asked them to move into the Initiator-Inquirer process, which I had taught them recently.

Initiator-Inquirer session begins with Tom as an Initiator feeling very angry with Vicky.

Ellyn:  So Tom, as you begin, will you tell Vicky what the issue is and what feelings this issue generates inside you?

Tom: I am sick of being controlled by you. You want to control my whole life. You leave no area untouched.

Ellyn: You are talking about your wife. I wonder if you could talk about your anger, your hurt, your pain and what situation results in you feeling controlled.

Tom: You bet I am angry. I am super angry. I didn’t think marriage would be this way. She tries to control my every move.

Ellyn: Will you tell her about one area where you feel controlled?

Tom: My work. She tells me how to work.

Ellyn: So perhaps you could say, “I feel angry when I believe you are trying to control my work.”

Tom: Okay. I think you are trying to control my work.

Ellyn: And I feel?

Tom: It is painful.

Vicky: I am not trying to control your work.

Ellyn: I know that. But for right now it is important to uncover a whole picture of what happens, how your husband feels and what goes on inside him. We’d like to know how he ends up feeling angry, believing you are trying to control him and then fighting with you. Will you ask him to tell you more about how he feels?

Vicky: What happens? How do you feel?

Tom: You tell me when to come home from work, how long to spend at work, how to act at work.

Ellyn (to Vicky): Will you ask him what that means to him?

Vicky: What does that mean to you?

Tom: I just get so, so mad. My life doesn’t belong to me. I am not independent.

Ellyn (to Vicky): Ask him to tell you more. In getting the whole picture, you want to know what situations result in him feeling controlled. Also, it seems important to him to feel independent…

Vicky: Aren’t I asking him to blame me more?

Ellyn: No, it isn’t about you. It is about his experience of how these events take place between the two of you. In couples often both people contribute to a painful interaction, but today we are working towards understanding much better how Tom gets so angry with you.

Vicky: Okay. When else do you feel controlled?

Tom: About my education. Where and when I should go to school.

Vicky: It isn’t my intention. I like to plan ahead.

Ellyn: I know it isn’t your intention. This is about Tom’s perception. See if you can keep pursuing his image without thinking about yourself and why you do or don’t do certain things.

Vicky: Where else do you want to be independent?

Tom: In my reading. You tell me what to read and it’s like you are taking charge of me.

Ellyn: Vicky, you are doing a great job hanging into this discussion and trying to learn more about Tom’s yearning for independence.

Let’s stop here for now. What are the main principles that determine my interventions in this session so far?

If you are reading this transcript and are not familiar with the Initiator-Inquirer process, here are a few headlines about this powerful technique.

One aspect of our developmental model is the Initiator-Inquirer process for effective communication. This process sounds simple, but is actually rich and multi-dimensional.

Couples are taught two roles:

The Initiator

  1. Brings up one and only one issue/problem
  2. Says what he or she thinks and feels about this issue
  3. Describes the issue without blame or name calling
  4. Is open to learning more about him/herself than was known before having the discussion

The Inquirer

  1. Listens actively and recaps a description of the issue
  2. Asks questions to understand the partner’s feelings, thoughts or desires
  3. Responds with empathy
  4. Continues with empathic responses until a soothing moment occurs for the Initiator

At first glance the roles sound easy. It might even be tempting to think of these as mainly reflective listening statements.  However, the roles are more complex and are designed to aid both partners and the therapist.

The roles provide assistance to each client in gaining new developmental capacities.

For the therapist, watching partners function in these roles provides a very explicit window into each partner’s level of differentiation, their past history and transferences that are interfering in the here and now and also their strengths.

Using the Initiator-Inquirer will enable you to see where essential work needs to happen in couples therapy. I teach this process in depth in my online training program, The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience.

I look forward to reading your comments.

 

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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  1. Great transcript and comments by all. I felt that I got a multi-dimensional learning experience this way. One thing that stands out for me in the whole big picture of things is that the therapist’s role in this intervention is to help each partner manage their anxieties by both giving support and modeling how to manage the anxiety that will inevitably come up in this process. This supports each partner in breaking old patterns and exploring other options other than the ineffective coping (defense) mechanisms that are serving to maintain the cycle. (and which are automatically triggered when people feel stress or anxiety).

  2. Thanks Ellyn for including me in this wonderful learning opportunity. I certainly found the transcript to be very informative. I am not very familiar with the I -I model. I look forward to seeing more of how it works.

  3. Excellent learning opportunity! I wish I would have read this last month. Sometimes, I have difficulties with content versus process. So this blog was extremely helpful. Question, If Tom would have started by giving an example of a specific argument re:control…do you let them process the specific argument as you guide them through the I-I process?

  4. Umit’s comments were outstanding in clearly explaining the usefulness of the I to I technique. An excellent set of reminders! Thank you, Umit! And Ellyn, I so enjoy watching you use opportunities to support and reinforce growth points for both members of the couple simultaneously, a skill I strive for. Ann

  5. Thetranscript of Vicky and Tom was very helpful in getting a better understanding of theI-I. My experience in using this with one couple is that my interruptions -my suggestions regarding different questions were experienced as controlling. The wife felt I interrupted her morethan the husband.
    I have another concern. I am often working in couples therapy with couples who are not married. They are living together and wondering if they will break up or make more of a commitment or in one case a young couple in their thirties who live separately. What criteria do you use to measure their commitment.Or the intial bond?
    Your model seems to talk primarily about marriage.
    How do you suggest a couple therapist maintain hopefulneess about marriage when I/WE SEEM to be around so many single and divorced people especially in big cities -like NYC
    Judith

    • I think marriage is very hopeful when partners are willing to do the work of developing themselves. If they prefer instant gratification, a long-term relationship will probably never work for them. Marriage in US culture requires getting past our own narcissism!
      Ellyn

        • Judith-
          About unmarried couples…It is difficult for most people to enter a full differentiation stage until there is a solid commitment (either marriage or some type of ceremony that says I am choosing you and committing to be together through good times and bad times). The ambiguity that goes with not having a solid commitment often undermines differentiation(not always, but very often).
          Ellyn

  6. Hi Ellyn,
    i like the way you deepened Tom’s experience and helped him express his anger in anok way. Would you still use this method if he had narcissitic traits. I have a pertner who has alot of anger but does not see his role and makes goal setting difficult. he is also unempathic and sensitive to perceived slights
    james

  7. Hey Ellen, I am seeing a couple that have been together for about 10 years. She is 37 and he is 39. They lived together for sometime and then broke up because he tried to start a business and failed. She moved into her own apartment with a room mate and he has started working again successfully. They describe their relationship as competitive, they like to play with puzzles together and are competitive in their puzzle building. She states that she does not know if he can t ever be the man she needs but she is staying in the relationship to find out since they have been together for so long. He is verbal but also stoic in session because he has a difficult time describing what he is feeling. I struggle with knowing how she will know when he is the “man she needs”. She continues to say she does not trust him to “be a man”. What would you say to her around the reasons that she describes staying in the relationship?

    • Hi Jeanette-
      A quick response here, but since you are in the training program, please remember to post your questions on lesson blogs,if you want an answer for sure, quickly and in more depth. Post anything on the open blog that you want to say or have me consider for future blogs.
      I’d look at her attachment style and also whether they have primarily had a relationship with her in a “practicing” stage without differentiation. Doing the paper exercise would shed some light on her competition style. It seems like too much focus is on him!
      Ellyn

    • Hi Jeannette. I wonder what your client’s meaning of “being a man” includes. This becomes an opportunity for her to be curious about her own beliefs & values rather than distracting her focus on her partner. I wonder also what his meaning of being a man is. The dialogue can provide a great opportunity for them to learn more about each other as well as themselves.
      Margo

  8. I’ve used the I-I model many times and still find it a challenge especially when clients are new to the model. They’re awkwardly trying to comprehend the I-I sheet, which complicates an already challenging conversation they’re trying to have. I found it SO relieving that Ellyn actively guided the Inquirer thru the process; even to the point of suggesting what she might ask at several points, moving the process along with greater ease as they adapt to the model. Ellyn was also more direct than I have sometimes been; a good reminder.
    Thanks so much for sharing this! I look fwd to the next installment.

  9. Thanks so much, Umit, for your thoughtful comments. I never thought of examining a transcript in such a structured, detail way. I really like your approach. You helped me see some of the learning points from Ellyn’s transcript so clearly. It’s a great way to learn & to express one’s understanding, & to reinforce the basic concepts being taught. Thanks again.
    Margo

    • Hi Margot,
      Thank you very much for your sincere feedback. It is really encouraging to learn that my comments are useful.
      Best wishes,
      Ümit

  10. Hi Ellyn,
    Thank you for sharing this highly instructive transcript. Here are my learning points.

    “..am sick of being controlled by you. You want to control my whole life. You leave no area untouched.
    Ellyn: You are talking about your wife. I wonder if you could talk about your anger, your hurt, your pain and what situation results in you feeling controlled.”
    Learning point: When the initiator directly focuses on his partner (i.e., projection), Ellyn asks for the situation which results in that projection. This is important because this both validates his feelings (i.e., being controlled) and redirects the focus on the self rather than the other.

    “She tries to control my every move.
    Ellyn: Will you tell her about one area where you feel controlled?”
    Learning point : Getting specific details, when the initiator does not elaborate spontaneously.

    “My work. She tells me how to work.
    Ellyn: So perhaps you could say, “I feel angry when I believe you are trying to control my work.””
    Learning point: Focus is on how the initiator perceives the events.

    “Okay. I think you are trying to control my work.
    Ellyn: And I feel?”
    Learning point: Links the thought and affect.

    “Vicky: I am not trying to control your work.
    Ellyn: I know that. But for right now it is important to uncover a whole picture of what happens, how your husband feels and what goes on inside him. We’d like to know how he ends up feeling angry, believing you are trying to control him and then fighting with you. Will you ask him to tell you more about how he feels?”
    Learning point: Supports the inquirer by saying, “I know that”. Gives the message that the first task is to understand what goes on inside the initiator; how he comes to that specific conclusion.

    “Tom: You tell me when to come home from work, how long to spend at work, how to act at work.
    Ellyn (to Vicky): Will you ask him what that means to him?”
    Learning point: Teaches the inquirer what to ask, which is, “what does it mean to you?”.

    “Tom: I just get so, so mad. My life doesn’t belong to me. I am not independent.
    Ellyn (to Vicky): Ask him to tell you more. In getting the whole picture, you want to know what situations result in him feeling controlled. Also, it seems important to him to feel independent.”
    Learning point: The thema is: I’m being controlled. Now, it’s time to get the whole picture. This is because, he is too angry. So, what happened seems to be a only last straw.

    “Vicky: Aren’t I asking him to blame me more?
    Ellyn: No, it isn’t about you. It is about his experience of how these events take place between the two of you. In couples often both people contribute to a painful interaction, but today we are working towards understanding much better how Tom gets so angry with you.”
    Learning point: Teaches that what counts is how one experiences the events.
    This section reminds me of what we, as therapists, do in therapy. Even when our clients get angry with us, i.e., transference, we continue to focus on their experience, rather than defending ourselves.
    Also, it shows how to help the inquirer develop resilience_“This isn’t about you.”_ to stay in the dialogue.

    “Vicky: It isn’t my intention. I like to plan ahead.
    Ellyn: I know it isn’t your intention. This is about Tom’s perception. See if you can keep pursuing his image without thinking about yourself and why you do or don’t do certain things.”
    Learning point: Keeps the conversation on track. That is, the subject is the initiator, how he perceives the world, his vulnerabilities. The task of the inquiror is to listen to and again listen to him and ask questions with the aim of understanding him, not manipulating him.

    “Ellyn: Vicky, you are doing a great job hanging into this discussion and trying to learn more about Tom’s yearning for independence.”
    Learning point: This intervention is highly striking. It simultaneously supports both partners in their own roles. More specifically, it gives the message to the inquiror to hold her feelings, to focus on the partner’s core wishes, which will also probably include his vulnerable feelings. To the initiator, it gives the message to go beyond complaining, and tell what is really important for him.

    General principles seem to be:
    Not allowing the conversation to drift. To this end, actively helping the partners in their roles on every occasion.
    Supporting both partners. Making it very clear that there is no side-taking.
    For the initiator: The focus is on the self. I language is needed.
    For the inquirer: The focus is on the other. Questions to the effect of understanding his inner world are needed.

    Ümit

    • Umit-
      Thank you for taking the time to write such excellent comments. I especially liked what you said about, “Learning point: This intervention is highly striking. It simultaneously supports both partners in their own roles.” I think many of the best interventions are those that do exactly that. I challenge myself to do that whenever possible.

      This session evolves in a wonderful and complex way. I’ll have the next part up in early September. I will look forward to reading your comments about it.
      Ellyn

  11. I have been using the Imago “Couple’s Dialogue” which is useful in helping someone listen instead of respond or defend. I see this initiator/inquirer as being helpful beyond the C.D. It could be useful to couples where one or both partners are fearful of bringing up a subject because of past escalation around the topic. This technique could help them explore a little deeper than the C.D., while feeling safe.

  12. Hi Ellyn, I really like this approach. It certainly helps with the differentiation process. This was a great example of helping the wife understand Tom’s perspective without being accusatory and in non-judgmental way, helping her see how her approach makes Tom feel smothered by her control. Thus, feeling as though he has lost some independence.
    Helen

  13. Thanks to all of you for some very interesting comments. I don’t have time to respond to all of them specifically and more will come in future posts. However, a few general comments will address some of your comments/questions.
    1. The higher the level of distress and the higher the amount of hostility, the more structure is required from the therapist, especially at the beginning.
    2. Seeing where each partner breaks down repetitively in each role will show you their level of differentiation and give you the area to work more actively with them.
    3. Elisa’s question is important-This couple is not as hostile and out of control as many. I let the topic broaden so I could learn more diagnostically. I didn’t know how much was unique to their dyad and how much was a repetition of his past. With a more “outrageous” initiator, I would not have let it broaden as much.
    Keep up the good work everyone!!! And keep your posts coming.
    I will be out of the office for alot of the next 2 weeks but I will read everything when I get back.
    Ellyn

  14. Margo, I agree with you, working with body experiences can be helpful for getting in touch with feelings. I have not studied the work of Eugene Gendlin. I will have to look him up. Thanks
    Lucille

  15. I wonder if it’s possible to work with one half of the couple when the other won’t come for therapy? I find some really useful insights in your work – thanks so much,
    Cathy

  16. I like the formal structure of the I-I. I use questioning to help each party understand what the other is experiencing. The aha moment is sweet. thanks for the example and I look forward to the rest.

  17. I found your dialogue of I and I very helpful. I try using it many times and get caught up in the structure. I wind up asking the questions for both partners and they just repeat it. I have trouble with the flow and staying a long time with each partner. I end up going back and forth with the partners and I end up doing all the work, although the partners do seem to benefit from my help. Is it that I am not explaining it correctly? Do you have any suggestions.

  18. Hi Ellyn.
    It’s nice to be back in the loop again since our Level 1 closure in May.Thanks for including me.

    This transcript clearly illustrates that blurred line between anger and blame. You helped Tom turn to his inner experience away from his impulse to blame Vicky. I continue to be aware of the effects of the Inquirer’s questioning without mirroring her partner first. Questions can so easily take her out of a curious, energetically connective place with Tom, & as a nonthreatening means of getting out of her own way.When she asked “When else do you feel controlled?”, I wonder where he might have gone intuitively instead of moving back into blame. He had already stated, “I am not independent.” before Vicky intervened. That felt like a potentially vulnerable place for him to explore. More silence by Vicky after mirroring, trusting his process, seems powerful, allowing him to explore without her reactions.

    Like Elizabeth commented, I, too, wonder if your response to her could have been to hold aside her thoughts to be addressed later, at which point then you could educate her about space for both partners’ views, as well as her feeling like she was stepping into a trap of being the object of his blame. Perhaps validating her, without agreeing with her perception, might have been enough to bring the focus back to Tom?

    Last thought…thank you, Jim, re. men and feelings. I’ll try your sentence stems to help clients access their feeling states, and for Inquirers to consider them to help their partner deepen into their feelings, if that’s what’s wanted. I also use the body experience as a window into feeling. Another educative opportunity for both genders to access their feelings & then put words to the body experience. The process of Focusing (Eugene Gendlin’s work) works so well here.

  19. I appreciate reading how you worked with both partners to stay focused on his feelings. I have done this work before but many times, I get sidetracked into their stuff and do not keep them focused. Reading how you maneuvered them to stay on his feelings without making her defensive was helpful. I am afraid many times; I am concerned with making the inquirer defensive. Thank you. I will try this soon I have angry couples. Many are angry because one of the partners has cheated.

  20. Hi Ellyn,

    Hope it is okay for me to comment even though I already took your course. It is helpful for me to do these exercises.

    I see you are in the early stages of teaching them the I-I process, how to maintain their respective roles, and how to not personalize the process. I see you giving them developmental assists in order to learn how to do this.

    One thing I learned is that when the initiator must focus on one issue at a time, it is broader than what I have been doing. For example, I think I would have made the mistake by telling Tom to stick with feeling controlled at work instead of just feeling controlled in general and I don’t think I would allowed the discussion to move toward wanting to be more independent b/c that would also feel like the topic is becoming too broad. Was wondering if you could comment on that.
    thanks for this,
    Elisa

    I also have been having some difficulty explaining to a partner how “it’s not about them” and the way you do it for Vicky was very helpful.
    Thanks, Elisa

  21. I appreciate how you teach the individuals in the couple to be curious and to individuate as you have them do the exercise. It is fascinating and a real Aha! when they realize they are actually learning something about their partner, rather than experiencing what their partner is saying as blame. It opens up the relationship (and the minds of the individuals in the couple) to actually want to know more, where once they felt frightened of hearing their partners. I have been using this technique for a few years since I was in your group and it has helped many times. In fact, this one example will be useful for me with a couple tomorrow evening. Thanks for your generosity in sharing what you learn and teach.

  22. Thank you, Ellyn. You are incredibly generous in providing this detailed information. I don’t do a lot of couple work but I have found your approach full of useful insights.

  23. Hi Ellyn,
    I like the way you overtly reassure her that it’s not about her, but about how he gets angry. At the same time he’s listening has a heads up about thinking about it differently.
    Keena

  24. Ellyn, would you comment on what diagnostic meaning you make of an Inquirer who continues to go back to defending and explaining herself over and over again even when you are coaching her to stay in the Inquirer role?

  25. A great exchange. I’m very curious how you’ve helped Vicky’s emotionality and defensiveness. It seems very challenging to “hear” what she perceives as anti-Vicky rants. You do a great job assuring her this isn’t anti-Vicky but does she actually believe you? Or is that not really the purpose at this point…

    I think what I like best is that Tom is probably, for the FIRST TIME EVER, being asked to go deeper and articulate the details that you’re getting out of him.

    (By the way, I’m Bill Doherty’s daughter and will be pursing my MFT in a year. I am learning everything I can especially because couples work is one of my passions.)

    Yours in learning,
    Elizabeth

    • I think that this type of model is very useful first and foremost to increase emphatic listening between couples something which is really hard to put in practice when both partners are in continuous fighting. Really useful. Thanks.

  26. Dear Ellen, I like your initiator-inquirer process. I am struck by how we therapists expect men to describe their feelings. Just the word sometimes makes them freeze like a deer in the head lights.

    I have found a presentation that seems to work around this a bit to be as follows.

    1. When I notice this happens: (like you tell me what to read)

    2. I imagine (something like: you dont think I know what I want to read)).

    3. Then what it is like to be me is: (that I am not my own man and I don’t like it).

    Somehow asking someone to say what they observed, then taking responsibility for their on imagination or the meaning they gave to the observed experience, and then talking about what it was like to be them, allows men and some others to avoid the F word. This also leads to less reactivity on the part of the partner. Best and thanks for your blog.

    Jim Walkup

    Thanks alot Jim-This is very useful. Ellyn

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