When Rebecca Sears started presenting on Imago Relationship Therapy in St. Petersburg, Russia, five years ago, she assumed her translator knew what she meant when she said counseling could help couples “connect.” Soon, however, the confused faces of her students hinted that something wasn’t quite making the transition from English to Russian.

“I eventually found out that they were translating the word ‘connect’ into a word that has something to do with legs being chained together,” said Sears, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist, American Counseling Association member and faculty member of the Imago International Institute. “It had a real negative connotation, something more like being burdened, held back or held down. I was thinking there must be something really powerful about this work because, even with that translation, they still wanted to hear more.”

Language translation is just one of the many challenges Sears has learned to negotiate while presenting on the Imago approach each of the last five years at an annual conflict-resolution conference in St. Petersburg. The six-day conference, co-sponsored by the American Common Bond Institute and the Russian Harmony Institute, explores how conflict transforms all kinds of relationships, from the interpersonal to the international.

The Imago model helps couples connect more consciously by using intentional dialogue to initiate safe communication. In Russia, Sears applies these principles to multiple scenarios for conflict resolution. By mirroring, validating and empathizing, conversation partners avoid seeing one another as their own projections and instead deepen their understanding for the other’s point of view. Sears’ 2001 workshop on transforming conflict into compassion was so popular that the conference organizers continue inviting her back each year.

Counseling as a new language

During her workshops, Sears teaches the theory and then requests volunteers for dialogue demonstrations. In the United States, most of the workshop participants are couples, but in Russia, most attendees are sponsored by their employers and rarely know each other. Despite both this unfamiliarity and the language barrier, Sears hasn’t experienced a shortage of volunteers. “They just can’t wait,” she said. “You ask for volunteers, and everybody wants to be the guinea pig.”

Sears also appreciates what she described as the Russian willingness to approach education with a spirit of companionship. “The entire conference group really becomes like a little family,” she explained. “We’re all in residence together, 24 hours a day. It’s totally unlike an American conference. (In Russia) we’re all going to the sauna at night together and eating and drinking together. It’s very intimate.”

Imago emphasizes the relational interactions between people. As such, it demands that the therapist step out of the “expert” role and act as a facilitator. Sears said this difference is particularly challenging in Russia, where the counselor often is considered an authority figure. “I’ve even observed some difficulty in dealing with group dynamics at the conference,” Sears said, describing a roundtable discussion. “It was challenging for them to move from a cognitive level into a more personal discussion. The Westerners seemed to do it more easily, most likely because we’ve had more practice.”

Complicating matters is the fact that few Russian counselors have had their own personal experience of therapy. “Some of the students have done counseling with the faculty in their own programs,” Sears said. “It’s a total luxury to be able to do that. No one thinks about the conflict of interest because it’s so rare an opportunity.”

Sears faces the same imbalance between the number of female and male students in Russia that many counseling programs experience in the United States. Last May, she hosted a post-conference training session in which women outnumbered men by a ratio of 4-to-1. She hopes that introducing the material at an academic level will invite equal participation between the sexes in the long run. “My experience is that the men at the daylong workshop appreciate it as much as the women,” she said. “What we know about all of this relationship stuff is that if something’s not working for one person, it’s not working for the other. If it’s not working for her, it’s not working for him; it’s just a defense.”

Participation in Sears’ workshop is not limited to counselors and psychotherapists. Attendees also include academics, educators and civil servants, each of whom take Imago’s communication principles back to his or her own work environment. The conferences have even inspired Sears’ translator, a foreign languages expert, to return to school to study counseling.

The enthusiasm of the information exchange has become one of the highlights of Sears’ experience in Russia. She related the story of a Chechen journalist who was reporting on the workshop. He took Sears aside during a break and implored her to record a video message to his wife begging her not to divorce him. “With tears in his eyes, he asked me to tell her that he ‘knew what to do now’ and that she should give him another chance,” Sears recalled.

“What inspires me is (the Russian people’s) incredible resiliency,” she said. “There still is the total faith and hope in the human condition within a country that has seen centuries of anguish. There’s a depth of conversation, of connectedness with Russians that I don’t have in this country. I think that actually comes out of the difficulties. People need to rely on their inner resources more because they don’t have all of the things that help us avoid relationship in this country. The conversations I have with Russians are 10 times deeper than the conversations I have with a majority of Americans — even as a therapist.”

Counselor as diplomat

With all the red tape involved in teaching halfway around the world, plus the continuing instability of the Russian economy, Sears’ commitment to teaching counseling abroad is very much a labor of love. From navigating political waters to ensure her visa to importing appropriate study materials, she has invested her own time and money to make connections between cultures.

Despite the costs involved, Sears said the mutual benefits created by her work in Russia inspire her to raise the necessary funds to return each time. Her workshop has grown annually, with the number of new participants matching the number of returning attendees. Sears is struck by how her relatively simple discussions about communication skills have garnered such interest.

“They really love this material. Under communism, they really couldn’t have any such thing as a personal problem,” Sears explained. “Psychology was just an academic subject, because everything else was collective and about the group. The individual was not important. Even the training programs today are still very academic. Cognitively, they know a lot of theory and are very academically minded, but clinically, there is much learning left to be done.”

Part of this lack of clinical awareness, Sears noted, relates to the narrow demand for counseling services due to political and economic factors. “Russians don’t do therapy like we do,” she said, “and what is being done is on a very small scale. Transportation and money to pay for such services simply do not exist. The psychologists there want to train in therapy and want it to occur, but most have jobs at schools or universities.” She added that government corruption and cultural stigmas continue to make mental health services difficult to obtain.

Alcoholism and spousal abuse are major issues for the Russian people, Sears explained, so she has been inspired to introduce the relational approach of Imago therapy as a way of improving quality of life. “Just like everywhere in the world, being in an intimate relationship is the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” Sears said. “But because we’re relational creatures, we all long for it. Russia is a very difficult country to live in. The people are very connected, but they’re very alone.”

Sears has found consistent interest in the potential of the Imago approach to change Russia’s political landscape by helping people see another perspective. “Russian history offers some fascinating examples of how the spirit rallies itself to be hopeful over and over again,” Sears said. “At the conferences they say, ‘Come back and help us,’ and they just patiently wait a year. Here people would say, ‘If you’re not back in a couple months, I’ll just find something else.’ But there, the interest is so genuine and it’s just growing. … I think the Russians love this material because it addresses a need they identify with immediately.”

To Russia for love

Sears’ interest in international work was born out of a family trip to the Berlin Wall when she was in high school. “Even then I was really interested in the question of what it was in life that could lead to those kinds of barriers between people,” she said. “I totally did not understand it, and it really captivated me.”

In college, Sears studied political science and Russian history. She was teaching high school students in Atlanta when she first visited the country in 1972. “Going there under the Soviet regime, we were followed everywhere,” she remembered. “People were afraid to talk with us, but everyone wanted to talk with us. It was the most fascinating time.” Despite the obstacles of language and political pressure, Sears made several friends with whom she has remained close over the years. She visited Russia six more times, taking high school students with her and making presentations on Russian life when she returned to the United States.

After becoming a counselor, Sears began studying the Imago model of relationship therapy. One of her new colleagues told her about the Russian conflict-resolution conference. She submitted a proposal and attended her first conference in 2001.

“The Russians have really invited me on this whole journey of really trying to understand life,” she said, “starting all the way back with the question of what existed in this world to create those kinds of barriers between people, and a desire to understand that. But being able to go back and train in Imago, that invitation and that welcome in some way feels like it has brought my life full circle. While I have always gotten a lot from them — everything from adventure to historical training, friendships and interesting vacations — it’s like I am able to give back. That’s brought fullness to my life.”

From teacher to trainer

After getting her feet wet as a presenter at the annual conference, Sears is about to embark on a new project this year — training Russian therapists for Imago certification. While her conference workshop took place just one day each year, Sears’ new endeavor will require three separate four-day training sessions. Making location arrangements, translating materials and recruiting participants have proved arduous. “Maybe a few more than half the people have e-mail addresses, and not all the computers accept English,” she said. “I can’t get Russian on my own computer, and even if I could, I couldn’t read it. Even typing is difficult. All the training materials must be translated.”

Sears also is working toward a business license to allow her to accept payment for the training program. “One of the reasons Russia is still struggling is that it’s not friendly to Western businesses,” she said. “Russian currency is not accepted anywhere, so they’re going to have to pay me in dollars, and arranging that part of it is still pretty complicated.”

But the hardships are outweighed by the joy Sears has found in exploring Russia’s approach to healing. “When I started to get a hold of moving not only my work but my life from an individual paradigm to a relational paradigm, the question for me became, ‘How can I not go and share when I’ve got information that really improves and benefits all of us?’” Sears explained. “It’s important to note that most counselors are not trained that way, but it’s really a spiritual journey. It’s just as personal as it is professional. There’s really no difference after awhile.”

“The peace implications with this kind of work are vast because Imago is really not just a form of therapy, it’s a social movement about helping us see the other,” she said. “What better place than the former Soviet Union, a place that is still so split, with so many factions? To ever think when I grew up and was standing at that Berlin Wall, and now here I am … sharing how to stay connected and heal and repair one another — it’s miraculous. Of all the places I could have kept returning to in the world, I chose one of the hardest because there’s a deep well of connection there.”

Sears challenges each of her colleagues in the counseling profession to give presentations at international conferences. “Even when you are traveling, go and visit organizations where counseling is being taught and make these kinds of connections,” she advised. “In most cases you’re met with open arms, and there’s a chance to learn from them and also to share. This really is the way to continue to build peace, making these kinds of connections. Go and meet people doing this work around the world. What starts to happen is a wonderful ripple effect of invitations.”