Ellyn Bader

… Stop Angry, Hostile Fighting and Immediately Structure More Effective Interaction

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. It can be used with couples at all of the different developmental stages.

Couples are taught two roles:

The Initiator-
1. Brings up one and only one issue/problem
2. Uses “I messages” to describe thoughts and feelings about the issue
3. Describes the issue without blame or name calling
4. Is open to learning more about him/herself than was known before he/she started talking

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 Rogerian reflective listening statements. However, the roles are more complex and are designed to aid both partners and the therapist.

For the partners these roles provide a way to stop competition for “who will be attended to” in any dialogue. They clearly delineate who is the listener and who is the responder. The roles also give partners specific skills to learn and apply so they can mange their own emotional volatility during tense discussions. A positive outcome from this approach is that clearer boundaries are delineated around each partner's specific concerns and vulnerabilities.

For the therapist, watching partners function in these roles provides a very explicit window into each partner's level of differentiation. You can fine-tune your interventions based on each partner's level of development. Using the Initiator-Inquirer will enable you to see where the partner's break down in these roles. For example, Hostile-Dependent couples breakdown very early in the process and require lots of structure and support from the therapist.

Common examples of breakdowns in the initiator role:
1. Blaming the other rather than being able to focus on the self and one's own internal process.
2. Avoiding or refusing to initiate. Maintaining instead a reactive position in the relationship
3. Demanding a merged response from the other

Common examples of breakdowns in the inquirer role:
1. Starting to problem solve and “fix it” immediately rather than allowing space for the partner's own process
2. Asking self referenced questions that have more to do with the inquirer than the initiator, like “Don't you think I'm upset, too?”
3. Demonstrating minimal ability to self soothe and contain themselves when in the inquirer role

When you teach this process to a couple, they can work with it on their own until one partner breaks down. The breakdown shows the therapist a clear path to intervene. It is then your task to work with that partner using a variety of therapeutic methods to strengthen their own boundaries and self capacities so they can return to the dialogue and function well in the role.

Common self capacities that are developed from working with partners using the initiator-inquirer process are:
1. Increased anxiety tolerance
2. Increased ability to delay gratification
3. Increased ability to internally self-reflect and self define
4. Increased capacity to self-soothe
5. Increased capacity to experience empathy
6. Increased ability to self validate

Repetitive sessions with the Initiator-Inquirer process help each partner build their capacity to not take things so personally. This is especially important when a partner is regressing in the initiator role. When the inquirer is able to do less self-referencing and is able to tolerate some regression in their spouse, the cycle of defensiveness will be contained.

The inquirer can become curious and ask questions which then help the initiator process their own regression more successfully.

Working in this way will provide you with a way to get out of the middle of a couple's conflicts and work with both partners at the same time.

As you become more familiar with the “I to I” model, you will find a variety of ways to creatively apply it by varying the emphasis so it is appropriate to each client's fragility, sensitivity or developmental level.

If you'd like to learn the Initiator-Inquirer process more completely, it is explained in our video, “Neutralize the Anger.” And we sell packs of 25 coaching cards for you to give to clients when they are learning and practicing the “I to I” process. Both the video and the coaching cards are available at Therapists' Resources.

If you're not already using the “I to I” process, I urge you to try it. It's probably the most widely used of all our interventions. Its potential to simultaneously promote self-discovery, intimacy, and harmony makes it a powerful tool for you and impressive progress for your couple.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., and her husband, Dr. Peter Pearson, are founders and directors of The Couples Institute and creators 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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Category: Initiator-Inquirer Process,Therapists' Blog
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