Turning Harmful Conversations into Collaborative Dialogues: Part 1

Collaborative Couples Therapy and Dr. Daniel Wile

I recently completed a workshop on Collaborative Couples Therapy offered by psychologist Dan Wile in Oakland.  

Surrounded by psychologists and therapists who dedicate their professional lives to helping couples improve their marriages, I was the only professional whose focus is to help couples dissolve their marriages.  

But my goals aligned perfectly with the goals of the training: to improve our skills at moving couples from an adversarial to a cooperative relationship by improving their conversations. I was eager to learn whether the principles and methods Dr. Wile offers to therapists in Collaborative Couples Therapy might improve my skills as a divorce and family mediator and collaborative lawyer.

The Workshop

Dan Wile is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Oakland, whose work has been praised by noted marriage therapist and researcher Dr. John Gottman.  

Dr. Wile has taught at various schools in the Bay Area, and has written several great books on couples therapy (including After the Honeymoon: How Conflict Can Improve Your Relationship). He also offers trainings to therapists and workshops for couples.  

The workshop for therapists that I attended was conducted in his home. Seven therapists and I sat in his comfortable living room and learned about the theory, method, and practices involved in Collaborative Couples Therapy. Shy at first, it wasn’t long before we were jumping in to try our hand at role-playing exercises. 

If mediators are going to work with divorcing couples effectively, we need much deeper communication and interpersonal skills than is offered in basic mediation trainings. Dr. Zvi Strassberg, one of Portland’s best psychologists working with families in divorce, suggested Dr. Wile’s workshop to me. Dr. Strassberg had taken the workshop himself a couple years ago.

In this blog post, I will provide an overview of Dr. Wile’s basic theory and primary methods for working with couples in conflict.

What is It? The Theory of Collaborative Couples Therapy

Dr. Wile believes that, regardless of the substantive issue in dispute, the couple adds to their problems by their inability to have an effective conversation about the problem.  

Instead of sharing what each partner is thinking and feeling, people routinely adopt two strategies. Partners fight or withdraw to avoid a fight.  

Fighting involves an attack. If a partner fights back in reaction to an attack, both are now caught in an adversarial cycle, and they have become enemies. He calls this the Adversarial Cycle.

Avoiding and withdrawal, on the other hand, involve closing down. If a partner withdraws or avoids the other in reaction to an attack or a withdrawal, the partners have turned each other into strangers. Dr Wile calls this the Withdrawn Cycle.

Dr. Wile considers both these strategies – attack and avoidance – to be “fallback measures” that couples use when they are not able to express what they need to say. He calls this “losing our voice.” While it may not be easy to recognize and express feelings, when couples resort to these Plan B fallback measures, they only make things worse. 

 

If a couple were truly able to have an effective conversation, if they were to collaborate in discussing a problem, they would be able to speak to each other (and listen to each other) about whatever is “alive” for them at the moment (here Dr. Wile borrows Marshall Rosenberg’s term; see Non-Violent Communications).  

Dr. Wile calls this sharing of one’s core feelings the “leading edge.” Even when that feeling is difficult, partners will share so-called negative feelings such as anger, jealousy, regret, embarrassment or fear with each other. This sharing creates an intimacy that keeps couples connected even when they might otherwise disagree about an issue or problem.

Dr. Wile calls this the Collaborative Cycle. In the Collaborative Cycle, each partner “confides, admits, reassures, acknowledges, empathizes, reaches out, expresses warmth, sees things from the other’s point of view, gives each other the benefit of the doubt, and builds on what the other says.”

Effective work with couples in Collaborative Couples Therapy involves helping partners move from an Adversarial or Withdrawn Cycle to a Collaborative Cycle.  

To do this, Dr. Wile works within, between, and above the couple to help them recover from fighting or withdrawing.

  • In going within, he helps each partner discover his or her authentic voice, that leading edge that never got said because it was too risky or prohibited.   
  • In going between, he helps the couple turn the fight or withdrawal into a conversation.  
  • In going above, he helps the individual find a “platform” by creating a compassionate vantage point from which each person can find empathy for the other in the middle of the conflict they are struggling with; and he helps the couple together find a “joint platform” so that they can speak collaboratively about the impasse they have reached. 

In all of this, Dr. Wile is focused on “solving the moment,” that is, what is presented in session. While he does not disregard other theoretical approaches that might focus on such factors as childhood origins or personality problems, he uses these as further opportunities to create collaborative dialogue.  

When the present moment is manifesting problems for a couple that might stem from, say, traumatic abandonment in one’s childhood or an emotional deprivation that has led to adult narcissism, Dr. Wile helps couples develop such “elegant” and authentic voices that, ideally, one has no need to regress to habitual, defensive fallback behaviors.  

(Note: Dr. Wile is realistic; he cautions that this is not easy, it doesn’t always work, and it is never done perfectly.)

How Does it Work? The Methods of Collaborative Couples Therapy

To help move couples from an Adversarial Cycle or Withdrawal Cycle to a Collaborative Cycle, Dr. Wile uses and teaches three main methods. 

He asks questions and makes compassionate overview statements that might create an intimate conversation.  

But the primary method he emphasizes he calls Doubling.  This is the “signature method” of the Collaborative Couples Therapy.

Doubling involves the therapist speaking as if the therapist were one of the partners talking to the other. The therapist becomes the partner speaking to the other. Dr. Wile collapses the space between himself and the client, and actually gets out of his chair and kneels next to the person for whom he is speaking.

As he puts it, the “person [the therapist] is speaking for now has someone literally on their side helping them get their partner to understand – or just figure out what they want their partner to understand. They feel less alone.”



Dr. Wile’s goal here is to restate what the partner has said in a way that is more skillful and easier for the other partner to hear.

Thus, the therapist restates a person’s angry, accusatory, blaming or avoidant statements into calmer, stronger, and non-blaming statements.

Of course, he checks to make sure he is on track. He wants clients to use their own judgment rather than go along with what he says, and he wants to make sure he is capturing their true thoughts and feelings. And so he always asks, “How much of this is right and how much is wrong?”

If the person says that Dr. Wile is wrong, he will then ask them to make it more accurate. And if the person says that Dr. Wile is right, then the therapist will ask the client to put it in his or her own words.

After having doubled for one partner, he then turns to the other and checks in, doubling for them too if that technique would be helpful.

In all this, Dr. Wile’s goal is to help the couple make explicit, clear, true, full statements to each other about things that they are leaving implied, vague, partial, barbed or avoided.

He is very clear with the couple about what he is doing when he Doubles.  He might, for example, say: “There’s a conversation hidden in this argument that I want to bring out.”  

His Doubling techniques include: 

  • Changing the tone from harsh to friendly
  • Adding statements of feeling or need
  • Making acknowledgments (about the other partner or one’s own position)
  • Appreciating their predicament in a compassionate manner (We’re caught again . . . “)
  • Adding a question that will turn the monologue into a dialogue (“What do you think about what I said?”).  

In addition to helping the couple find their “leading edge,” Dr. Wile emphasizes helping them find a compassionate vantage point, a platform, so they can look at their situation and talk about their interaction, which puts into perspective what happens when they fight.

In effect, he teaches couples to collaborate on the process of communication in order to resolve, or at least to manage, their substantive conflicts.   

Dr. Wile writes: “[T]he couple creates … a bird’s eye view … above the fray, a platform. They operate as joint troubleshooters talking in a dispassionate, compassionate, and intimate way about their fighting, withdrawing and lack of intimacy. They develop a shared picture of their relationship – how it is special as well as its trouble spots.”

Does this Apply to Divorcing Couples?

In Part 2, I will describe how much of Dr. Wile’s theory and methods might prove helpful to divorce mediators and collaborative attorneys.  

In part 3 of this series, I will write about Dr. Wile’s methods for helping the therapist (or divorce professional) keep his or her calm in the face of a client’s negative behaviors.