An Application of Communologue: United Way of Kootenai County

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Donald L. Gibbon, 205 Elysian Street, Pittsburgh, PA  15206   Tel: (412)-362-8451






Donald L. Gibbon

 Copyright ©2006 by Donald L. Gibbon



Northern Idaho sounds like it should be about as far away from 21st century  social ills as you could get and still have access to modern America’s social benefits.  Coeur d’Alene, known to demographers and government bureaucrats as CdA, has a population of only about 35,000, but it’s still the largest town in the state north of Boise, some 460 long miles to the south.


Idaho’s total population grew by almost 30% in the last decade, to 1.3 million. Some 31% of the households in the state have total incomes less than $25,000 per year and 34% have no vehicles.  In a state this big, with communities so spread out, a picture of potential problems begins to emerge, problems which an organization such as the United Way might feel moved to grapple with. Problems such as lots of single-parent households, no way to get to work other than cars, few low-skill jobs, few extended family support systems, a tradition of self-reliance leading to despair when you just can’t rely on yourself any longer because of disease, aging  or lack of funds. Hmmm – On second thoughts, this situation doesn’t sound quite so ideal.


That kind of picture is what led to the founding of the Untied Way of Kootenai County, Idaho, now almost fifty years ago.  CdA is the county seat of Kootenai County, whose population jumped almost 20% in the past five years, from about 109,000 to 128,000. Appendix A to this article gives a brief demographic summary of the geography and demography of the area. The last paragraph of that summary tells an important part of this story: eight percent of the families and 11 percent of the total population in the county is below the poverty line. The median income for a family is only $42,000, while the whole state’s figure is $53,000 for the same metric. Only five states in the entire country are lower than this: Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Montana and New Mexico. While the community looks superficially prosperous from the appearance of the rapidly growing suburbs and the sprawling strip malls, clearly there is a problematic under-class.


That’s what United Way organizations across the country are facing, each in their own way. Let’s pick up this story earlier this past year.  Jeff Conroy, then executive director of the small UW organization in CdA,  had sent a letter to retiring Board of Directors

member Al Turtle, thanking him for donating about $150,000 worth of his professional time to the United Way. Al’s a psychologist, specializing in relationship therapy.  What could Al possibly have been doing for the United Way that would be worth that much time?


Al got his thank-you letter after serving a six-year staggered term on the Board, an office shared with 19 others of his fellow citizens. When he joined the Board he had had virtually no prior contact with the organization and he wasn’t well known in the community as a “Board-type” person.  Nominations to the Board seemed based in part on length of membership in service organizations, such as Rotary or Kiwanis… or, in Al’s case, on an inspired suggestion of his name by a mutual friend of the Nominating Committee chairman! Other members tended to be retired educators, local utilities executives, Chamber of Commerce types, definitely not the “boat rockers” of the community.


Prior to that time, the Board itself appears to have served largely as a rather passive rubber stamp for the Executive Director’s initiatives. In other words, there was not a great deal of pressure for action or change coming from the Board. At the time of Al’s arrival on the Board, he and several others began to put new energy into Board service. Al and several others were appointed to a new subcommittee of the Board combining two Board functions: strategic planning and internal operations. Their chosen task was to review the organization’s By Laws for congruence with the way it actually operated.  This is getting down the real nitty-gritty of organizational performance, something that is rarely taken quite so seriously by Boards of Directors. But the group, naming themselves the “SOB” committee (Strategic Organizing Breakfast Club, shortened to “SOB” in self-deprecating recognition of their go-get-‘em attitude, took on this role with great energy and began meeting from 7AM to 9AM every other week. And to some people’s surprise, meeting attendance was high. Soon it became known that these breakfast meetings were actually FUN, and other Board members wanted to be included.


What was happening here? We’ll have to back up and get to know Al Turtle a little better to understand his pivotal role in developing this “group dynamic.”


Al is a gifted student of human interaction and has a remarkable ability to verbalize what he sees. He cuts through the pretense and gets to the driving forces in a social situation, or perhaps more often, the restraining forces. Why doesn’t a conversation flow? Usually some party to the conversation feels unsafe. They’re afraid of the consequences of speaking their truth. They’ve experienced those consequences in the past, being shamed, blamed or criticized for whatever they’ve said. Finding out where the unsafety is and helping the unsafe person feel comfortable is Al’s specialty. For example, for some years Al has met frequently with a group of Army Reserve enlisted men and their non-commissioned officer leaders, originally at their request. They simply weren’t getting along and they couldn’t get their jobs done. They didn’t trust each other, didn’t feel safe with one another. The enlisted men felt the senior NCO didn’t understand their position but were afraid to explain it fully. They’d seen what happens when you try that!


Al practices Imago Relationship Therapy, am organized approach to  marriage and couples therapy developed  by Dr. Hendrix  and popularized his work in the best-selling book, “Getting the Love You Want.” Imago work teaches couples how to use the tool of “Couple’s Dialogue” to create a safe space within which their relationship can heal and grow.  There’s a lot more to it than that, but the point here is that creating safety for communication is what Al specializes in.  In addition, over the past five years, Al and a group of fifteen or so other Imago therapists from across the world have been expanding the Couple’s Dialogue into “Communologue,” a dialogical process used by groups to create safety for all the members of the group. Al used the tools of Communologue with his Army clients and enabled them to develop mutual respect and trust and begin working together effectively again. This doesn’t happen automatically, but Al is a gifted practitioner of these arts. The result, after working together in Communologue, is a group of men who are deeply committed to each other, rather than almost at war with one another.  More details on the Couple’s Dialogue and  Communologue are contained in Appendix B at the end of this article.


So Al was the “facilitator” of the early morning meetings of the SOBs. As he describes it, his self-defined job was make the potentially deadly-dull assignment interesting. How to do that? Make it permissible for anyone to say anything – safely. “If you agree with me, who cares? It’s much more interesting to have diversity,” quipped Al. The ice was broken early on when a local contractor, invited to one of the meetings, felt safe enough to really lay out his feelings about how the attitudes in the county were so bad that he was planning to leave! How could this be, in this best of all possible worlds in Northern Idaho? This suddenly widened the scope of the Committee’s considerations and drove out any possible feelings of complacency about their assignment. Al saw immediately that they were into rich territory for improvement. If he could maintain the feeling of safety, they could speak openly with one another about the parts of the population that are usually invisible to each other, the real responsibility of the United Way.


The key to safety is letting everyone in the group know that their point of view is acceptable. Al calls this “Pre-Validation.” That is to say, everyone has in their mind a personal rationale for whatever they say, and that’s OK. As listeners, it’s our job to understand their position, not theirs to change to our point of view. That mind-set in a group creates the willingness to speak honestly. If members know they are not going to be censured for expressing unpopular positions, diversity blooms and amazing things can happen.  Al has a particular gift for what he calls “pulling.” After a speaker completes a “send,” Al will offer what he calls an “intervention,” a short open-ended phrase designed to get the speaker to continue, to go deeper into their own thinking about their subject. For example, he might say something such as “And that reminds you of a time when….,” or “And that makes you feel… .”  The speaker will respond by a more careful reflection on what they have just said, enriching the conversation. It is quite remarkable how, when a speaker becomes more transparent, through invitation, the whole group relaxes.


The way to express a Pre-Validating stance is to not react to what a person says, but to show that you genuinely heard it by mirroring it.  One of the members of the group will mirror back what the speaker has said, checking to see that they have heard it correctly. Often they will say after mirroring, “Is there more?” And the speaker will continue until they have made their point, knowing they are being heard by the group.


The third key component of safety in Communologue is avoiding what is known as “Master Talk.” This is expressing your point of view as if it somehow is a universally accepted fact, “The Truth.” Here’s an example illustrating how Master Talk can be problematic.  The speaker may say, “It’s hot in this room.” That suggests that everyone will agree that it is hot in the room. But it’s quite likely that some find it comfortable and others may be cool. So a non-Master-Talk way to couch that sentiment about the room temperature is to say, “ I find it hot in here. What do you feel?” This makes room for other people’s opinions at the same time it expresses how you feel. So if a group member expresses some sentiment in the form of Master Talk, someone may mirror them, “So it’s your opinion that…..” or “So you feel that…” This cues the speaker in to the possibility that others may feel differently about the issue being discussed… and that it’s safe here to feel differently.


With Pre-Validation as the norm, mirroring to make sure everyone is heard correctly and with Master Talk eliminated, safety reigns in a group conversation. 


One thing Communologue is not is “efficient.” It takes time to handle group communication safely, to promote diversity, to make sure everyone is heard. So if “getting things done” is your main goal and inclusiveness is not high on your agenda, Communologue would not be the approach to take to running your meetings. But at the Kootenai County United Way SOB meetings there was no firm deadline for when they had to be finished. In fact, they were effectively in a position to write their own rules, to make themselves as useful to the organization as they could figure out how to be.  Communologue was in its best possible environment, with a Master Facilitator to make it effective.


In this unusual environment, the larger Board referred a  new question to the SOBs: what is the future of the United Way in our county?  By this time, after a couple of years of meetings, the SOBs had accumulated a sharp, committed, bold group of members, a coherent team. One of their first decisions was that the membership of the Board itself needed to be changed.  New talents were needed. For example, people skilled in finance and marketing were vital to make the organization work. But things were sliding  toward a crisis point. One Thursday morning their usual meeting place at the United Way office was locked when they arrived, so they adjourned to the Iron Horse Café across the street. During that fateful meeting, they came to the conclusion that the local United Way would be dead in two years if major changes weren’t made quickly. Al was delegated to carry this shocking news to the next meeting of the Board.


It worked. Change came quickly. The old Executive Director resigned and was replaced by the more adaptable, forward-looking  Jeff Conroy. He joined the SOBs at their breakfast meetings. Another important assignment came from the Board: the United Way has 26 member agencies. Are these agencies actually meeting the needs of the County? No one had any idea. Answering this question involved designing and implementing a major community assessment process. Getting the needed answers requires interviewing about 1000 people over the period of a year. This requires training the interviewers. And getting honest answers requires – you guessed it – a feeling of safety on the part of the person being interviewed. Al was of course asked to develop a plan for creating this army of interviewers, teaching them the needed skills.


To illustrate the richness that has come to the United Way’s approach to the community, consider a celebration party at the end of a recent fund-raising campaign, to which both supporting companies and recipient clients were invited. Representatives of the social agencies working to meet client needs were also invited. Some 500 people attended the dinner. As part of the program, the three populations were personally introduced to each other – donor, recipient, and agency staff – putting a personal face on all levels of the work. The theme of the meeting was “It’s Just Us!”  The community was described as having a wall through it, dividing the lucky from the unlucky. The job of the United Way is to break down that wall. In another telling metaphor, it was said that as a community develops over time, people’s eyes begin to close. It is the function of dinners such as this and organizations such as the United Way to open the community’s eyes.

Al Turtle has now rotated off the United Way Board of Directors at the end of his six-year term and Jeff Conroy has moved on from his position as Executive Director. But before Jeff left, he made sure that Al’s contribution to the re-vitalization of the organization was recognized. For Al, it was a tremendously rewarding experience, doing what he loves to do. Al’s website ( opens with this inviting offering: Building Great Relationships! That’s exactly what Al did for the United Way of Kootenai  County.

And by the way, the signs of impending doom for the organization have blown over. The fund-raising campaign last year was a success. And now, not too long after they feared that the organization might even collapse, the Board is daring to dream of doubling their campaign goal.











Appendix A:  Kootenai County, Idaho General Information

Kootenai County is located in the U.S. state of Idaho. The county was established in 1864. It was named after an Indian tribe. Kootenai County comprises the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho Metropolitan Statistical Area.  As of the 2000 Census the county had a population of 108,685 (2005 estimate: 127,668) [1]. The county seat is Coeur d'Alene6.

Geography of Kootenai County

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 3,408 km² (1,316 mi²). 3,225 km² (1,245 mi²) of it is land and 183 km² (71 mi²) of it (5.36%) is water. It is part of the Palouse, a wide and rolling prairie-like region of the middle Columbia basin.


Demographics of Kootenai County

As of the census² of 2000, there were 108,685 people, 41,308 households, and 29,659 families residing in the county. The population density was 34/km² (87/mi²). There were 46,607 housing units at an average density of 14/km² (37/mi²). The racial makeup of the county was 95.84% White, 0.17% Black or African American, 1.23% Native American, 0.50% Asian, 0.07% Pacific Islander, 0.59% from other races, and 1.60% from two or more races. 2.33% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 41,308 households out of which 34.90% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 58.60% were married couples living together, 9.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 28.20% were non-families. 21.90% of all households were made up of individuals and 8.30% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.60 and the average family size was 3.03.

In the county the population was spread out with 27.10% under the age of 18, 8.70% from 18 to 24, 28.00% from 25 to 44, 23.90% from 45 to 64, and 12.30% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 98.10 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 94.90 males.

The median income for a household in the county was $37,754, and the median income for a family was $42,905. Males had a median income of $33,661 versus $22,113 for females. The per capita income for the county was $18,430. About 7.70% of families and 10.50% of the population were below the poverty line, including 12.90% of those under age 18 and 7.30% of those age 65 or over. (,_Idaho)





Imago Relationship Therapy is based on the premise that our “imago,” the subconscious image we have of our primary childhood caretakers, controls a great part of our reactions to relationships as adults.  How we reacted to the events of our childhood, what our subconscious views as our “character adaptations,” has a lot to do with the way we react as adults to our partners or other intimate companions. Unless we have tools we can use to deliberately overcome that unconscious reactivity, we’ll go on acting like children right through our adulthood. Marriage is said to be “our last best chance to grow up” and a “laboratory for the creation of two adults.” It takes a lot of work to develop a conscious relationship, rather than a reactive one, and one of the tools taught by Imago therapists is the Couple’s Dialogue. The Dialogue uses the same general approach as described in the article above. The first step in a dialogue, after one partner sends a short message, is for the other partner to mirror it back to show s/he has heard and understood the send. After the sender has finished what they wanted to say, the partner then validates the send, telling the sender that they understand the sense of the sender and how it makes sense to them too. After checking to see that the sender feels validated, they then empathize with the sender, trying to deeply feel the emotional impact of whatever the sender has been experiencing.

When this is taken into a group setting for Communologue rather than Dialogue, while mirroring is retained, commonly validation and empathizing are passed over, unless the situation clearly seems to call for it. The major difference is that Dialogue is intended to be used by two people without assistance, with Communologue clearly works best with a skilled guide or facilitator to keep the participants “playing by the rules,” mirroring where necessary and making sure Master Talk is kept at bay. The guide will also try to make sure that everyone in the Group feels welcome to participate.


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