Put the Intent Into Your Intentional Dialogue

by Bruce A. Wood, CSW

How would you like to reduce conflict in your dialogues by 25 to 50 percent? Prevent toxic meltdowns from happening or get up to speed again quickly when a breakdown occurs?

There is a tool for doing this. It’s simple enough to use. Start each dialogue with statements of positive intention. Mirror your partner’s statement of positive intention.

I recommend the following well-tested version: My intention is to stay in this dialogue until both of us feel understood.

Making such a statement at the beginning of your dialogue is like taking hold of the steering wheel of your car or the rudder of your boat. You wouldn’t dream of pulling out of your driveway with your foot on the gas and your hands in your lap. That would insure disaster.

So, too, unless you establish an intention to truly understand your partner at the very outset of dialogue — and renew that intention throughout — you’re going to end up in a head-on collision.

Intentional dialogue must be exactly that: intentional. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.

I would like to see this point become part of standard Imago practice throughout our community: Intentional dialogue starts with statements of positive intention.

So now you have the key to successful dialogues, right? I can just end the article at this point.

Wrong. A simple statement of positive intention made as a mechanical opening to your dialogue will get you no better results than you’ve gotten in the past. Opening your dialogues with a statement of intention is only useful if it triggers a corresponding mindset in you and your partner.

That’s what the rest of this article is about — building the associations in your mind that make up the mindset that will get the best results for you in your relationship.

Several years ago I was working with a particularly challenging couple. These partners truly cared for each other but could set off emotional crises and high drama in one another in an instant. Somehow, despite the chaos, hurt feelings, rage and everything else that happened in session, I managed to help them walk out the door at the end feeling connected. This seemed miraculous. They would finish up each session — well, almost every session — on each other’s side.

As I analyzed what I was doing to help them get to this point, I began to see that I was mainly assisting them to understand each other. This didn’t, in itself, seem particularly remarkable. But as I continued to muse on the point, I came up with an observation that is key to all my work now: Conflict only exists when one or both partners are feeling misunderstood.

I thought back over every conflict I had observed and every one I’d been in. The constant was indeed the experience of feeling misunderstood. By contrast, when partners felt mutual understanding, their differences didn’t trigger conflict. They often experienced tensions around the differences, but not conflict.

Because of this observation, I started targeting breakdowns in understanding as my primary point of intervention. Then it occurred to me that conflict could be avoided altogether or greatly minimized if one used this insight to front load the dialogue process.

I was greatly aided in my thinking process by Jordan and Margaret Paul’s classic work, Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You? I had to modify their formulations to bring these into line with my crucial observations. In addition, unlike the Pauls’, I had my clients state their positive intentions out loud and mirror their partner’s statements of intention.

In retrospect, I can’t believe this step has not been part of intentional dialogue from the very beginning because there is nothing more crucial to effective communication than understanding intentionality.

There are only two basic intentions you can have in communication:

To protect and defend (closed)


To understand and learn (open)

All the different ways you can handle conflict grow out of these two intentions.

By intentions I mean your motivation or purpose. You can be either aware or not aware of your intention. But you always have one. Learning the difference between the two is crucial, because you can never resolve conflict from the closed position, when you’re in “protect” mode. “You can’t there from here,” as the old saying goes.

You can only get to resolution from the open position, the “learning” mode.

you operate from the intention to protect whenever you are trying to defend against hurt. Maybe you see yourself as dangerous, and your partner as fragile, and you are afraid of hurting him or her. Or maybe you view yourself as vulnerable, and your partner as the dangerous one. When people act from the intention to protect, it can look like rage, or walking on eggshells, or anywhere in between.

The tactics of protection are closed, shut down, and lead to a dead end. Whether one tries seduction or coercion, without a genuine openness to learning more about what’s really going on for one’s partner, there can be no real intimacy.

The intention to understand, on the other hand, leads to the breaking down of walls, to closeness and a freedom to find new solution to problems, solutions that work for both partners.

Consider the following case:

Charlotte has a frustration with Eddie. It can be about almost anything. Charlotte is not one to let frustrations build. She wants to talk about these things. So she brings up the problem. What she gets from Eddie is a glassy-eyed fish stare. Silence hangs heavy between them. She can almost see the anger building up inside him, resentment, maybe even hatred. She explodes in anger, and he storms out of the room.

A few cycles of this, and Eddie begins to believe that Charlotte is impossible. She’s always critical, controlling and hysterical, the way she goes into a rage.

Charlotte feels Eddie is cold, angry withholding. She begins to believe he really has no desire or intention to do the work necessary for a relationship. He’s probably storing up rationalizations for walking out of the relationship.

They are experiencing each other’s intentions as hostile. Polarization has set in. The walls are building.

Both are mistaken. Charlotte just wants to make the relationship work. That’s why she brings up problems. Eddie just want to make the relationship work. That’s why he’s slow to answer her. He is surprised by Charlotte’s complaint, wants to run it around his mind a couple of times, to check it out, and most of all, he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing and provoke an argument. He hesitates — a long time. And Charlotte explodes.

Pretty soon, even though both want to make their relationship work, neither one believes that the other one does. What’s gone wrong for Charlotte and Eddie? They both want their relationship to work. What’s wrong is they have gotten off course. One of them needs to take hold of the steering wheel. One of them needs to take conscious control, and pull hard to get back on course — to get out out of the intention to protect, and to set course on the intention to understand.


Most partners think the problems they have in their relationship are the results of their differences. “We’re just so different,” they say, as though this explains the problems. “We want different things.” “We just can’t see eye to eye.” These partners were just as different when they fell in love as they are now. Only when the relationship works people say, “Opposites attract.”

Problems in relationship are not caused by differences, but by how those differences are handled.

What is really at the root of the problem is fear. you believe that if your partner is different that you want him/her to be, you won’t be able to get your needs met.

You won’t get the kind of sex you want the way you want it.

There won’t be enough money to spend on the really important things.

The kids will out all messed up.

You will end up doing all the dirty work around the house.

It is my contention, from my experience with families I work with, that the only way to solve these problems and make sure both parties’ needs are met is to take the time to really understand each other’s different point of view. Because when partner don’t know how to do this, one misunderstanding is heaped upon another.

It is not that partners don’t want to understand each other. Usually they have tired every way they know ho. But the hurts multiply. Partners become angry with one another. They become polarized. Pretty soon, what started out as a little misunderstanding leave them miles apart — with a thick all in between.

Polarization involves a certain sequence of beliefs:

  1. I feel misunderstood by my partner.
  2. My needs are not being met by my partner.
  3. My partner doesn’t want to meet my needs, i.e., doesn’t care about me.
  4. My partner is hostile and malicious.
  5. I can’t be me and be loved by my partner, who doesn’t see or hear me and doesn’t want to.
  6. Whatever I do for my partner isn’t appreciated or isn’t enough.
  7. Why be in this relationship at all?


Both partners progress down a similar track, becoming more and more distant.

This sequence gets triggered by partners when they are overwhelmed by fears and frustrations. Then, misunderstandings escalate into polarization, because of the intention to protect.

Establishing The Intention To Understand

If you want to improve your relationship, the single most important thing you can do is to take control of your intention and keep it positive in al your communications. This action has turned around seemingly hopeless situations. Even one partner acting without the cooperation of the other can often straighten out a deteriorating relationship by doing this.

Intention is the rudder. If you are in a long-term relationship where a lot of walls have been built up, it may take a while to reverse direction. Relationships, like boats, don’t have brakes. It is more like turning an ocean liner around. Take hold of the rudder, intentionally, which most partners don’t even know exists, and take charge of the direction you are going. An ocean liner comes around slowly, in a wide arc. But if you despair that you are not getting instant results and let go of the rudder, the forward momentum of the years will carry you in the same direction you have been going.

Less damaged and less polarized couples will get quicker results.

But exactly how does one go about establishing and maintaining a positive intent to understand?

The first step is to become aware. You already operate from both the intent to protect as well as the intent to understand. Become aware of the differences between these two. Become aware of how each one feels in your body. Notice how when you are operating from the intent to protect, your body may become tense, and you hold your breath. Notice how when you gently resume full exhalation and inhalation of your breath, and assume an open and relaxed body posture, this definitely will support your efforts to move more and more into understanding.

Notice, also, that the tendency to go into protect mode is automatic, while shifting to the intent to understand usually requires a conscious decision on your part. it is very easy to slip into the protective mode. To stay in understanding requires vigilance, determination, and patience with yourself and your partner.

Staying in understanding also requires humility on your part. By humility I mean a realistic view of both your strengths and limitations, and of what you can know what you don’t know. The more we explore ourselves, the more we realize how complicated our motivations are. We sometimes accuse others of having faults that are actually our own faults. We have blind spots. We commit to making changes we think will be easy, and then discover that our own stubborn natures resist being told to change. Or we ask for changes, and when we get them, we find ourselves irritated and unsatisfied with what we thought we wanted. Our memories are faulty. We misperceive events.

The second step then is to state your intention to understand out loud to your partner and to yourself.

For many years I taught intentional dialogue by simply explaining to the partners the differences between protection and understanding. The idea is easy to grasp. Most partners get the point quickly. So move on to the next point, right? But that didn’t work well for my clients or for me in my own relationship.

What was missing? The answer was simple. State your intention to understand out loud. But it was years before this simple point became obvious.

There is enormous power in the spoken word. When you agree to start any difficult discussion with a statement of positive intention, you move your relationship to a new level.

The method for doing this is simple. Make short statements that start with the phrase “I intend…” or “I am committed to…” or, “I want…”

Let’s start with the statement I began this article with: I am committed to staying in this dialogue until both of us feel understood. I recommend starting all your dialogues with this specific formulation. It makes sure that the focus is on both of you getting to the point of feeling understood. In my experience, if this is kept in mind as the primary goal, everything else works out. You can, however, individualize and add important variety to your openings with additional statements like:

  • I intend to really listen to you, to understand your point of view.
  • I want you to know I’m bringing up this subject because I care about you and our relationship.
  • I am committed to making this dialogue safe for both of us.
  • It is my intention to get to a good place where we feel connected and close.
  • I really want to find a win-win solution for us.
  • I want you to know in this dialogue that I am on your side.
  • I commit myself to listening to you with an open heart and mind.

Statements of intentionality should be broad and general. Don’t start by getting into the actual subject matter — for example sex, money, kids, in-laws, etc. — during the statement of intention. Doing that is likely to ignite an argument before you get started.

Make these general statements of intention clear and simple.

You can make the statement either about your “process” or about your “end goal.” “I want us to end up with a win-win solution,” or “…where we feel more connected,” is an end goal statement. “I intent to really listen to you,” or “I’m willing to keep working at learning to make our dialogues safe, ” is a process statement.

The third step is that if anywhere in your dialogue your process begins to break down, then immediately stop discussion of the issue, and go back and re-establish your intention to understand.

It is very easy to get off track. An unexpected misunderstanding can trigger lots of pain, and suddenly one or both partners are back into the intention to protect.

Stop the process. “We’re getting stuck here. Can we go back to the intention to understand each other?” Or, “We’re off track. Would you help me get us back on track?”

If you can catch yourselves off track early enough, it is a simple process to right your direction. If you are a more reactive couple, you may find yourselves in flare-ups where you need to separate physically to calm down. This is fine. When powerful emotions are triggered, all kinds of chemicals get dumped into the bloodstream that keep us on edge. Many partners need a space to calm down in.

But if you do need to take a break, be sure to make an appointment to come back to finish the dialogue. that can be ten minutes from now, or an hour, or the next day. You be the judge of what you can handle, and how long you need to get more centered. But the problem is not going to go away by itself. You don’t want to add your problems by stirring up your partner’s abandonment issues. Take the breaks you need, but always make the appointment to complete an interrupted dialogue — and then keep the appointment.

The three rules for establishing intentionality are:

  1. Learn to become aware of and monitor the intentions to protect and to understand within yourself and the relationship.
  2. State your intention to understand aloud before beginning any difficult dialogue and mirror your partner’s statement of intention.
  3. When your process breaks down, return to step two and begin again.

These three rules are the cornerstone of effective communication for couples. With them you can take charge of the direction of your relationship, by controlling fears and establishing safety between you and your partner. they are your tools for learning to love in a deeper way.

NOTE: This material is adapted from How to Love Your Porcupine, available on the Internet for a fee at www.1stbooks.com.