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Stages of Collaborative Dialogue

When you are facing a decision with your partner, you'd like dialogue to be collaborative.  You'd like to be able to trust that you can share everything that's alive for you regarding the decision, fully hear your partner, and make a decision that truly works.

Unfortunately all too often you get caught in snags that derail true collaboration.  You leave a conversation wondering why there isn't space for you in this relationship or why everything has to be hard.

Truly collaborative dialogue occurs in stages and requires both people to trust that everyone's needs can be met.  That is, the conversation doesn't have to end with both people grumpily giving up what they really want in hopes of creating a veneer of harmony.

This trust and collaboration to meet all needs typically gets derailed in three ways.  One, a fearful urgent mind imagines that there is not enough time for each person to be heard fully and that deciding quickly is essential; it's as though you are racing through life so you can get to those few moments of happiness.  Unfortunately racing through decisions usually leaves disconnect and resentment in its wake.  So when you finally get everyone to the beach for the perfect day off, there is a haze of grumpiness hanging over the "happy time" you had been racing toward.

Two, you forget to turn off your opinion making mind.  When you are truly making space to hear the other person in a collaborative dialogue, your intention is to understand what's alive for them.  It's not about you in that moment.  When you hear everything your partner says through the lense of your own like and dislike, you partner experiences approval and disapproval and will start to either shut down or move into fight mode.  Opinions might be expressed through body language or words.  The easiest way to interrupt this habit is to simply reflect back what you've heard with no additions or edits on your side.

Three, you imagine that if there is something alive for your partner that is not alive for you, your needs will be pushed to the side.  Basically you perceive a threat to your needs.  A sense of threat results in withdrawing or arguing.  Often the initial sense of threat gets escalated when you play out specific scenarios in your mind and can't see how your needs could be included.  In this case you have skipped the collaboration part in favor of your own dire predictions.  

However if you recognize these snags as they arise and turn your attention back to trusting that all needs can be met, you can move through the stages of true collaborative dialogue.  Here they are:

  1. Fully hear each other's feelings and needs without reference to strategies.  In this stage you are just connecting with the feelings and needs alive for you and your partner around the given topic or decision.  Your partner's feelings and needs don't have to make sense to you at this stage, it's enough just to hear them with kindness.

  1. Brainstorm and Dream Big.  Next, hear each other fully around the ideas for meeting those needs.  Don't evaluate, like or dislike, or get practical at this stage.  Throw in some wild ideas and big dreams to help open the creativity door.  This stage is incredibly important for helping you to see outside the box and keeping your dialogue alive with fun and creativity rather than the contraction of threat.

  1. Choose Strategies for this Time that you both are connected around and pleased with.  The quality of connection in this stage of dialogue will depend on how the first two stages went.  If you start to negotiate and there is immediate tension, then back up to empathy and reassure each other that all needs are equally valid.  As each idea or strategy is proposed take a look at the needs that were originally named and play the scenario out showing how those needs would be met.  Typically all needs are met by several strategies not just one.  Holding an attitude of experimentation can help with this stage.  Rather than "we have to make the one right decision", admit that you don't know exactly how it will play out and that you trust yourselves to be present for disappointment and compassion should things not unfold as planned.  Lastly, if you get stuck and don't see a way forward, then you have likely merged a need and the strategy to meet it.  Make sure the needs you named are actually universal needs (Use the list!) and not just your preferred strategy to meet a need.

A collaborative dialogue doesn't have to take more time than what you usually do, it does, however, require more self-awareness and mindfulness.  Mindfully reflecting on your own before the dialogue can help with this.  Also, engaging in each of these stages on different days can support you in bringing self-awareness and mindfulness to each stage.


Take a moment now to choose a decision that you and your partner will make together that is a few weeks away.  Begin to prepare for that dialogue now by connecting with the needs alive for you in that decision.

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