DOTS Journaling: Four Steps and Three Questions to Strengthen Relationships

Photo by Anna Herbst
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves.”

Carl G Jung

Let’s face it, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Sometimes, even the most loving couple can aggravate each other. Familiarity can blur sacred boundaries. We bicker, blame, perhaps even say hurtful things before we pause to consider the consequences. At times, friendships can experience tension, as can relationships with family or coworkers.

Whether we are in a relationship where neither person seems to hear or understand the other or confined to four walls during a restless pandemic, it can be hard to see beyond annoyance or hurt to get unstuck. So, how can we safely manage anxiety, gain clarity, and emerge with next-level relationships? 

Fortunately, there is a proven way, and you have probably been doing it already: Journaling.

By expressing our emotions through written language, without pausing the pen or censoring our thoughts, we can get to the heart of the matter.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

If you are familiar with journaling, you most likely know its many benefits, including the health improvements that happen when we engage in this process as a practice to combat depression and reduce or eliminate anxiety.

In addition to controlling these diseases, here is a reminder of just a few ways journaling can support us:

  • Provides relief from racing or disturbing thoughts
  • Helps organize thoughts
  • Boosts our mood and positive outlook
  • Improves memory
  • Improve self-awareness and esteem
  • Boosts immunity
  • Facilitates personal growth

With so much to gain, it is surprising that journaling is readily accessible and requires little to get started: a pen and something to write on.

While journaling when we are stressed may help relieve tension at the moment, it may not necessarily strengthen our relationships unless we analyze what is happening on a conscious level, making it likely the problem will repeatedly surface.

So how do we get off the hamster wheel and move beyond writing to reconnecting and bonding with others?

The key may be in HOW we journal. 

For nearly a year, I found myself journaling about a specific issue in my relationship, usually centered around our different parenting styles. When it came to this situation, we could not communicate well: I would say something, he’d become angry, we would stop speaking, or vice versa. Repeat.

Anger, sadness, or disappointment drove me to the page each time. The relief I experienced was enough for me in those moments. But eventually, the problem would show up on the page again.

Looking back at my journal, I knew I had to dive deeper into a more reflective form of introspection, one that would help me connect the dots and understand what was really at the root of the problem.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

I developed DOTS Journaling: a four-step, three-question approach to unpack issues, relate to others, and reconnect relationships in a meaningful way:


Dump, Observe, Time, Synthesize

Step 1 — Dump it all onto the page. Writing to release tension and charged energy — that lion roaring in our head — can immediately calm us and lower anxiety, making space for us to think more clearly.

It’s important to acknowledge how we are feeling and the reasons we are feeling this way. (I feel this way because…)

By detailing what happened and what was said, we can begin to unpack the issue.

Step 2 — Observe the situation by answering three questions:

Q1: What is my role?

Q2: What might the other person be experiencing or feeling?

Q3: How can I help?

“Ego takes everything personally.”

Eckhart Tolle
Photo by Yasin Arıbuğa on Unsplash

Q1: What is my role?

This question helps identify the specific actions and words we contributed to the event.

How exactly did I contribute to the issue? What could I have done better?

(To help separate the person from the event, try writing in the third person. Instead of using “I” in this reflective writing, use a pronoun, your name, or a friend’s name.)

Q2: What might the other person be experiencing?

This is where we will need to identify and move Ego* aside, shifting the focus to consider what is potentially happening in the other person’s life.

It helps to imagine floating high up in the air, hovering over the person. Looking down, note their relationships, and consider what may be happening for them at work, home, or school. What observations may explain their role in the conflict?

Try to step in their shoes.

* We can recognize Ego’s voice because it is harsh, needy, often negative, and defensive. Alternately, our intuitive inner-voice is calm, gentle, and non-judgemental.

“If you can’t control people, then control your reaction to  them. If you can’t control a situation, then prepare for it.”

Lilly Sin
Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

Q3: How Can I Help?

Here we identify an action we can take to improve the situation – one that doesn’t compromise our integrity, but emulates our values and aligns with our intention to reconnect.

We can ask ourselves if there’s a behavior or action we’re contributing that may need addressing. Or do we need further information to gain insight? Perhaps we can explore this by asking the person open-ended questions.

Might we need to apologize? If so, why?

Step 3 — Timing — Reconnect with the person when the time is right. Knowing when they are most receptive to engage in a conversation could mean the difference between progress and a stales-mate.

Consider the time of day they have the most energy and calming presence. Note the extent that food impacts mood or attention. To ease the pressure, should we consider a neutral meeting space? Does he/she require more time to digest information? If so, might a handwritten note or e-message work best in this situation?

Once we identify the best time and approach for reconnecting, it’s helpful to prepare for a productive conversation. We can do this by speaking from the “I” point of view to create a neutral, non-accusatory tone. While it’s important to share how we feel, the discussion should happen when we are grounded and ready to share facts.

  • The situation made me feel… because…
  • I understand these facts about what happened…
  • I acknowledge my role and understand that I (contributed in this way…)

Acknowledging our role can help build trust and accountability and create a more open conversation.

Avoid directing blame. Instead, state facts and open up the conversation with open-ended questions** that begin with how or what. Closed-ended questions that result in yes or no answers often don’t provide insight.

  • What would you consider a fair compromise?
  • What steps do you suggest we take?
  • How can we support one another when it comes to this issue?

It’s helpful to remember that we can’t control how others react, so offer this gesture without expecting anything in return. Some need time to process. Trust that the words or acts will be received as intended.

**A note on the importance of the pause: the time between delivering a question or message and response can feel uncomfortable if there is prolonged silence. Try to settle into this space and allow the silence to happen. This is critical thinking time. It could be that the person is processing and exploring new territory. If you wait for them to naturally break the pause, you will receive a genuine response.

Step 4 — Synthesize — Reflect on the experience and results of DOTS Journaling.

How did the follow-up conversation go? Was an understanding reached? Did the timing work or might there be a better time to re-engage? What observations should be noted for future reference? 

How difficult was it to recognize and move Ego aside? How did its absence (or presence) contribute to the conversation? 

Answering these questions on the page makes our reflections tangible, so they are there to revisit and remind us when needed.

Once I approached the conflict in my relationship through DOTS Journaling, I understood that I was carrying issues from my childhood that were no longer serving me. And in the space of our conversation, he was encouraged to consider his actions. 

This new awareness helped us formulate healthier responses to some of the parenting challenges we faced. It took time, practice, and patience but we were able to work through this issue and become better parents and better life partners.

Whether we are in the midst of a challenging relationship or simply wanting to improve one, DOTS Journaling can be an insightful way to problem-solve while learning more about ourselves and the relationships we care about. 

* * *

Published by

Nancy Roldán Johnson

Author of La Mariposa: An Empowerment Program for Adolescent Latinas, Co-Founder of Together for Latinas, Inc., Co-Chair of the One Circle Foundation

2 thoughts on “DOTS Journaling: Four Steps and Three Questions to Strengthen Relationships”

  1. Nancy,

    Hi! This is an among concept. As I age and encounter different conflicts, I see who as the underlying route cause. Was DOTS your invention?


    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you like the article. Yes, DOTS is something I created based on the issues I was facing. I needed to move out of my own way, so to speak, in order to see the bigger picture. Let me know if you use it and how it goes. 🙂

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