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Mindful Dialogue Structure for Tough Issues

Whether you are in a new relationship and facing a tough issue or in a long term relationship and facing communication breakdown, having a reliable structure for dialogue can help you move toward connection with your partner.  While the specific structure and vocabulary offered in Compassionate Communication (NVC) can make connection a whole lot easier, it also takes time and practice to cultivate these skills.  In the meantime, you can still practice the consciousness of NVC and create connection with your partner in a mindful dialogue structure.

The structure I will propose in this article contains a few key elements:

  1. Intention:  only have the dialogue if you are grounded in the intention to connect.  If are setting out to convince your partner that you are right and s/he is to blame or wrong in some way, take more time for self-empathy or receiving empathy from someone outside the relationship.

  2. Mindfulness:  keep tuning in to body sensations, tone of voice, thoughts, and posture to track your own reactivity and how your partner is responding to your expression.  Maintain enough mindfulness to notice the moment you lose track of your intention to connect and move into defending, attacking, self-blame, or shutting down.

  3. Self-responsibility:  do your best to speak from your own experience rather than implicitly believing your interpretations of your partner's behavior.  That is, own the fact that you are making an interpretation when you do so.

  4. Listen & Reflect back:  it's just a part of being human that everything you think you hear, see, or otherwise perceive, is distorted by your own biases.  Reflecting back what you hear your partner say prevents myriad problems that arise from distortions and misperceptions.  In addition, hearing you accurately reflect back what's been said, meets all sorts of needs for your partner like companionship, being seen & heard, love, intimacy, connection, and relief.  Lastly, taking time to reflect back what you heard helps your limbic system stay attuned and calm.  Physiological regulation is key to helping you stay mindful.

With these elements in mind, here is a structure* for your consideration.  Choose a time of day to dialogue when you both have optimal resource (that is, you are fed and rested at the very least).  Choose a period of time that seems easily do-able.  It's okay to start small, say, ten minutes.  Commit to a couple of times a week for at least one month.  In the beginning, choose topics that you are pretty sure you won't become reactive around.  You might simply share appreciations, or something about your day at work.  You might also choose to limit dialogues to present time events, until you are confident you both can stick to the structure.  Choose an item that the speaker will hold in his or her hand to signify that he or she is the speaker.  A special pillow or stuffed animal works well.

Once you are sitting down, state out loud that your intention is to connect.  Also, affirm your commitment to the following agreements:

  • The speaker will not engage in name-calling and will do his or her best not to blame and criticize.

  • The speaker will do his or her best to vulnerably and directly express his or her experience.

  • The speaker will speak for only 2 minutes or less and then allow his or her partner to reflect (a timer is useful here).

  • At any time, if reactivity is detected, either person can call a time-out without giving any explanation.  Time-outs are immediately respected without questions or further dialogue.  If needed, the dialogue can continue at the next scheduled dialogue date.

  • Even if the speaker is asking a question, the listener is only reflecting back. If the listener begins inserting his or her view in the reflection or telling the speaker that she or he is not following the structure, reactivity has taken over and it's time for a time-out.

  • The stuffed animal or pillow is only exchanged when the speaker has a sense of being heard and is ready to hear the other.

  • Each person spends approximately equal time speaking in each dialogue date.

If you and your partner are struggling to keep your relationship together and are highly motivated to do so, I highly recommend making twice weekly dialogue appointments a priority for the next year.  If you find yourself unable to keep or make this commitment, then there is likely a way you have structured your lives together that is consistently undermining your ability to stay connected.  Remember, keeping agreements isn't just about willpower, it's mainly about the supports you have put in place that allow you to keep that agreement.


Even if you aren't quite ready to adopt this specific structure, take a few minutes now to reflect on the four key elements named above.  With which ones do you have a sense of consistency and competency?  Is there one to which you would like to bring more attention and practice?  If yes, set your intention to practice that element in the next dialogue with your partner.

*For a dialogue structure that is designed around NVC skills see "Mindful Dialogue Structure" on my website here:

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