The other day I was scanning through a magazine when my eye caught an advert which immediately took me back five years to when I attended an Imago workshop in Stellenbosch that had changed my life irrevocably. Recently I again met Francois Esterhuizen, an Imago therapist, motivational speaker and mentor based in Stellenbosch, to reminisce over what exactly causes Imago to have such a huge impact.

Fifteen years ago, while he was involved in youth ministry in Potchefstroom, Francois was introduced to Imago. He explains that Imago accounts for the mainly subconscious reasons we fall in love with those with whom we fall in love. Imago therapy helps uncover the subconscious reasons that often give rise to great conflict in relationships. This approach fascinated Francois so much that he began to use what he had learnt with the parents and children who came to see him about conflicts or problems.

He immediately saw the difference it made in the way it helped people to really listen and be heard.

ImagoAfrica explains the essence of Imago as follows: “The basic assumption of Imago is that partnerships have a higher calling/mission than simply the pursuit of happiness. The purpose is to help each other heal the childhood ‘wounds’ that have resulted from imperfect parenting. Often people incorrectly assume that it is only in homes of abuse and profound neglect that ‘wounding’ occurs, but as Freud said ‘. . . there is no parent in the world that can react perfectly to the changing needs of a child.’”

Ultimately relationships carry the potential for healing and growth.

Francois shares that some of the most beautiful moments he has experienced have been with parents and children. He recalls a parent-teenager workshop where he specifically remembers a 7-year-old boy grabbing his father by the neck so that their foreheads almost touched, looking his father in the eye and saying: “Daddy, I hear that you are saying . . .”

Francois tells of experiencing many similar moments either with couples or individuals – all made possible by the Imago dialogue structure. He says this structure makes people put aside their own agendas so that they can listen to the person talking. Mostly we want to defend or lash back or we listen with the intention of responding and sharing our opinions. Francois says these “bad” habits make communication difficult. Imago is about cutting through these habits and learning new, healthier ways of listening and responding.

In the basic Imago dialogue there are four steps. For example, if a couple or parent and child are discussing a certain frustration, then, during the dialogue, there is a Sender (person talking) who voices his/her frustration to a Receiver (person listening). The Receiver then repeats (called mirroring) what the Sender has said word for word as closely as possible. This helps the Receiver to really listen and be present in the moment and not be distracted by other things. ‘Mirroring’ what has been said encourages the Receiver to listen carefully. After the Sender has had his/her say, the Receiver gives a summary, for example: “So let me see if I got everything you said . . .” And then checks again with: “Did I get everything?” If something has been missed, the Sender can now repeat what he/she said. Also, if the repeating shows up some other aspect, that can be added. Mirroring therefore happens in both the first and second steps. The third step is about validation and showing understanding of the Sender’s world. The response to use then is “I understand what you are saying and it makes sense.” It is possible that if we really listen to the other person and repeat his/her words, we will really understand where he/she is coming from. The last step is empathy: after taking a good look into the other person’s world, we can have some insight into what the person is feeling, so we can say: “I imagine that you feel quite hopeless when this and this happens. Is that true?”

What Francois also loves about the Imago dialogue structure is that it really takes into account what our brain, specifically our reptilian brain, sees as threatening.

Normally our response is to react – to defend and go into fight-or-flight mode. This is but the tip of the iceberg. The Imago structure is designed to remove these on-the-surface feelings and really make the space safe so that we can dig down to the underlying, true feelings.

Beneath the anger and aggression the real feeling might be shame. The biggest takeaway, says Francois, is that Imago gives practical guidelines to make the space safe for deep connection and understanding between people, because without safety, connection is not possible.

There is only one way, Francois believes, to ensure safety between people, and that is when the parties involved are willing to become vulnerable, to really open up. “But if I’m not feeling safe,” says Francois, “I’m not going to open up. And if I don’t open up, there won’t be any connection.” Meaning I’m not sharing my true self and I’m pretending. To be “real” a person needs to be able to let his/her guard down.

Therefore there are some non-negotiable guidelines when entering a dialogue. Blaming, negativity or critique are not allowed in the space. That means that the Sender must use “I” language, and take ownership for his/her own feelings and ideas regarding the situation. At the same time this makes it easier for the Receiver to repeat what has been said. It is quite impossible to mirror something and not become defensive if one is being blamed, criticised or bullied. The structure helps enormously with this.

For many people this might feel quite strange at the beginning – actually quite artificial. But Francois says it is like learning to play a sport like golf. At the beginning everything feels awkward and uncomfortable. You feel incompetent and exposed. You are not used do doing things like this. You have to concentrate on getting the small things right – the very things that make the process feel stiff and formal. But after a while and some practice it becomes second nature and your new way of listening and sharing. “If you can just trust the process for a bit and do it, you will soon discover a whole new world in your partner or child that you never knew existed. This is when those ‘Aha’ moments occur and you can exclaim: ‘O, is this what you mean?’ Even if it is something that has been said countless times before – now for the first time it is being heard. Yes, it takes effort and it is uncomfortable, but normally this connection is what makes it worth your while.”

Want to know more? Check out the ImagoAfrica page here and browse their database for a therapist in your vicinity. You can also do a workshop or read one of the books by Harville Hendrix, the father of Imago. If you’d like to connect with Francois Esterhuizen, visit his page and give him a shout here.

[Main image credit: Royalty free stock photos]

Watch Harville Hendrix explain what is Imago:

Watch how these couples connected on a new level by just looking at each other for a few seconds: