Cooperative Dialogue Skills: What Are They and How Can Couples Benefit?

Couple sitting on couch reading the paperCooperative dialogue skills? Let’s unpack those words.

Cooperative means the tone of the conversation stays positive. Smoothly sharing information back and forth is like playing a game of catch: both partners have the skills to “throw” and “catch” without dropping any information.Cooperative” also means that partners are interacting as friends. They feel and act like they are on the same team, not playing against each other.

Dialogue is information-sharing where partners taking turns talking and listening. In effective dialogue, no one gives monologues. Partners alternate talking and listening, with each of them building on what the other has just said. Their air time is symmetrical, and each speaking time is short.

When effective dialogue partners are on the listening end, they seek to understand and absorb what they are hearing. You can tell by their frequent use of words like “yes” and “and” that they are registering their partner’s views into a shared information pool.

By contrast, ineffective dialogue partners push away what they hear. They listen for “what’s wrong” with what their partner says. They indicate their rejection of what they are hearing by their frequent use of the word “but.” “But” indicates that information is being removed or deleted, rather than utilized to build shared understandings.

With strong cooperative dialogue skills, couples sustain their love whatever challenges arise on their shared life paths.

© Copyright 2010 by Susan Heitler, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Martin

    August 19th, 2010 at 7:42 PM

    What is described here is an ideal scenario and is far from what happens in reality most of the times.If a couple has a problem,the main reason why they will try talking,they would not remain calm and would not listen to each other patiently because they will always be trying to make themselves heard.

  • Laura

    August 20th, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    I totally agree with Mrtin. This is a scenario that could only happen in an ideal world and is far from what happens when most couples talk or even disagree. It may start out civil but usually ends up in anger. And I am not sure that there are too many ways to avoid that. There are ways to argue and be productive but not always the polite conversation that is envisioned here.

  • nate

    August 20th, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    a friend and his live-in girlfriend had an arrangement-whenever they had to discuss about important issues and tempers were expected to go up,they would sit together along with a jar and whoever raised their voice would put in five bucks everytime he/she raises his/her the end,whoever raised his/her voice the lower number of times would take all the money.this works well for them to discuss things in a pleasant manner without all the shouting :)

  • Martha w

    August 20th, 2010 at 10:44 AM

    @nate:hey,that’s a wonderful idea!sure is worth a try :)
    i’m pretty certain others who have read this would say the same :)

  • Scott

    August 20th, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    maybe if my wife and I had been able to remain this cordial and civil divorce could have been avoided but seems a littl far fethched and unrealistic to me to imagine real life couple communicating this way

  • Dr. Heitler

    September 3rd, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    Thank you Martin and Laura for so honestly admitting that consistently cooperative couple interactions sound more fairy tale than true. If someone has grown up in a family where fighting was the norm, then fighting can feel like what everyone must be doing.

    Fortunately, what “most” couples do, if in fact most couples do fight, is not the only option. Eliminating fighting leads to being able to genuinely listen to each other. Eliminating raised voices leads to the kind of cooperative dialogue that can yield genuine win-win solutions to differences.

    Scott is absolutely correct that many divorces could be prevented just with couples agreeing that they will stay calm. If they speak with each other only in respectful voice tones when they need to talk over tough topics, the odds go zooming up that they will be able to clarify their misunderstandings and resolve their differences successfully.

    Like Martha, I love Nate’s idea of the money jar to provide extra incentives for keeping voices calm.

    In addition, if you go to, there’s a batch of games and interactive activities based on my book The Power of Two. These are designed for couples who want to upgrade their marriage. Click “Emotion regulation” for a free and fun way to learn skills for climate control and also for self-soothing when you are getting too heated.

    Lastly, a word of caution. “Everybody does it” seldome validates that “it” is a good thing to do. Aim instead to make your relationships top-of-the-line. The pay-off can be huge–more happiness for you, for your partner or spouse, and for sure for your children, their children, and for all the generations that follow you.

  • Weston

    September 18th, 2010 at 5:04 AM


    Here’s what I think some of the commentors are saying. Or at least this is what I am saying.

    I agree with what you are saying and they are easy principals to learn. I can read all the books, watch all your videos and get 100% on your quizzes because the answers are obvious and they are being viewed in a safe place emotionally.

    Knowing all this stuff and attempting to practice it and put it into effect does not change the fact that when people are feeling unsafe their flight or fight instincts kick in.

    Until you (and most other relationship experts) can figure out a way to get this training directly and immediately into people’s amygdala’s the minute their fear or anger response kicks in, then this becomes very much an ideal and almost academic exercise for most people

  • Dr. Heitler

    September 19th, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    I agree with Weston that many people need training on techniques for calming their amygdala’s flight or fight reactions.

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