How to be a Conversational Designated Driver

Every now and again I get an abusive email. It’s never from someone I actually know. My real clients are amazing people–sensitive, kind and resilient. They value my time and their own and we don’t have any issues with keeping respect for one another really high. But, before someone becomes an actual client, there is a certain amount of calling or emailing back and forth to discuss our schedules, the fee and other particulars. Last week, a fellow disagreed with the fact that I charge at all (because hey, my children like to eat and stuff) and decided to let me know that through several vitriolic and extremely personal emails that covered everything from how I look to his perception of my moral compass. I wondered to myself as I read them, “Does this guy ever really think about what is going on in anyone else’s life?” If he had been sitting there with me in person, would he have dared to be this unkind?

When I have an interaction like this that riles me up, I always try to visualize the person doing something vulnerable. For instance, I picture their mothers holding them when they were babies or how the person might look in a quiet moment of doubt. This helps me realign myself to the fact that we’re all mostly just playing a big game of bumper cars with life–bouncing off of people and experiences that give us the feels and trying, with sometimes limited skill sets, to figure out what to do with all that. I have discovered in couples therapy, that when partners can step back and have sympathy for (not agreement with) what is going on with their spouses, they can make decisions that are more clear and intuitively guided.

Stuck conversations happen when you’re not sure if an issue can even be resolved or when you are afraid to tell your partner what you really think. If you suspect that you and your significant other are trapped in a quagmire like this, what should you do?

Offer to be the designated drive in that conversation.

This means that you will ask really good, open-ended questions without interjecting a lot of judgements or advice. You will purposefully steer the other person towards developing his or her own deeper understanding of a topic. It always helps you if your partner can get more clear about his or her motivations and desired outcomes, especially if you think you won’t like what those things are. It’s essential to be speaking the same language based on the same evaluative system. And, when you really understand, you can be more empathetic.

So, what does an open-ended question look like? Here are a few to get you started:

1) Tell me more about how you feel about___?

2) What scares you the most about the situation we’re/you’re facing?

3) How will you know we’re/you’re resolving this?

4) What is the best possible outcome to this conversation/event?

5) What do you think you need to begin to see ___clearly?

As the designated driver, you agree to provide not just a sounding board, but to actively take the keys and bravely give it a little gas. I think deeply meditative conversations like this in which the DD pushes for details and nuance take more patience and greater conversational skill than simply jumping in with suggestions.

Do you and your partner need a tune up? Would you like to learn more about how to really get your relationship engine humming? Why don’t you come on in so that we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,


Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at Visit me on the web at or:

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