Utilize the Initiator-Inquirer Process in Couples Therapy

Stop Angry, Hostile Fighting and Immediately Structure More Effective Interaction

Are you interested in a way to get out of the middle of a couple's conflicts and work with both partners at the same time? One important and powerful aspect of our Developmental Model is the Initiator-Inquirer process for effective communication. The guidelines are simple, but the process is rich, and quite revealing. It can be used with couples at all of the different developmental stages.

In the “I-I” process, there are 2 roles, the Initiator and the Inquirer.

The Initiator:

  1. Brings up 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. And most essentially 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.

Why Use the Initiator-Inquirer

This process stops the “who will be attended to” competition, since the roles are delineated ahead of time. The roles also give partners specific skills to learn and apply so they can manage their own emotional volatility during tense discussions.

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.

For example, Hostile-Dependent couples break down very early in the process. In this case, the breakdown indicates where you want to focus so you can help them strengthen their own boundaries and self capacities. This growth will help them be a much more effective partner.

Common examples of breakdowns in the Initiator role:

  1. Blaming the other rather than focusing on the self and/or their internal process
  2. Avoiding or refusing to initiate. Maintaining only 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 questions that have more to do with self than other, 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 especially if they have their own Initiator-Inquirer guide cards at home.

Common self capacities that are developed 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.

As you become more familiar with the Initiator-Inquirer process, you will find a variety of ways to creatively apply it by varying the emphasis so it is appropriate to each client's sensitivity or developmental level.

If you're not already using the Initiator-Inquirer 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 growth makes it a powerful tool for you and helps create soothing moments that are new to your clients.

You can get your own pack of 25 I-I guide cards to give away to clients when they are learning and practicing the I-I process. Many therapists emphasize that the cards provide a needed anchor for their clients and are their secret ingredient for success with the process.

Change That Lasts

Developmental Interventions for Breakthroughs in Couples Therapy

July 7 – 12

A Free 5-Part Series with Dr.Ellyn Bader

Discover the Last Relationship Training You'll Ever Need

Have something to say?

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Marylou Donnelly
Marylou Donnelly

Tha I To I process continues to be my favorite after many years of use. Thank you for the review Ellen!


Thank you for this revieuw. I have a question I work in the Netherlands and my clients also speak Dutch. Is there a possibility to get the Englisch text on the I to I cards so I can translate it and lett it be printed on cards in dutch ( of course with your trademark text underneath) I would love to share this with my clients for their at home practice. WArm greeting Anja

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."

Discover the Last Relationship Training You'll Ever Need

Read Other Popular Articles