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What is a Dialogue?

A dialogue is a conversation between two people, each focused on listening to the other, making sense of what each other has to say. The origin is “Dia”  (through) and “logo” (Greek word for meaning). In my work with couples, I facilitate the Imago Intentional Dialogue, helping couples listen and understand each other.

How many of us think we are good listeners? Are we listening to understand the other’s perspective? Or are we listening to reply? Or are we listening for evidence that the other is the enemy?

The heart of being dialogical is containment and listening. Containment is the discipline of controlling one’s own reactivity in order to be able to listen deeply to a different perspective, which is difficult work. One must quiet the need to either talk or defend before one can really listen. 

Listening is when one person allows the perspective of the other person, and is empathetically impacted by what the other has to say. The listening needs to be done with the heart, with warmth and a deep desire to understand and allow the meaning to integrate.

What is the purpose of dialogue? 

The purpose of dialogue is not necessarily to solve problems or find agreement. The purpose is to create connection and differentiation, both of which are fundamental to healthy relationships.

Most problems between two people, whether they be parent and child, siblings, council members at a church, spouses, co-workers, neighbors, Jew or Palestinian, is their perceived loss of connection.

Unconsciously, we create a narrative in their mind to go with this perception, then our negativity bias sets in, trust goes down, perhaps we stop enjoying each other, or worse, start treating each other disrespectfully. All because we perceive that the other person doesn’t understand or is unwilling to understand. The whole thing feels threatening. The result is estrangement, breakups, splitting up homes, or congregations or families, divorce, writing each other off, leaving.

It’s often not about what it’s about

It’s astonishing how much damage to relationships and defensive reactivity comes from the stories we make up; e.g., A didn’t return B’s phone call. B made up a story that A is irresponsible or doesn’t care about B. So B, operating as if the story was true, didn’t reach back out to A. Or treated A poorly the next time they saw each other. There is a great poem that speaks to this. It’s called The Cookie Thief, by Valerie Cox. I recommend you “google it”. The story we tell ourself is the tragic self-fulfilling prophesy which creates an unnecessary disconnect all because of an inaccurate assumption.

How to turn a conflict into a connection

When we engage, when we listen to understand another’s perspective; when we lean into curiosity, genuine interest, we rediscover connection. We find that our worst case story was not true. Then we heal each other and reconnect. To be understood is a deep human longing.

As is most often the case in psychology, the behavior precedes the feeling. If you want to feel something; e.g., connection, do the thing that is consistent with that feeling, and the feeling will result.

Differentiation is Healthy

We are supposed to be different! If everyone saw everything in the exact same way, not only would we be bored out of our minds, but we would not learn or grow. The conflict IS the opportunity for growth. It’s not always easy to lean in to otherness; it can feel downright threatening, depending on how our brain associated it in early childhood. It’s not actually a threat to see a different perspective.

To be able to hold two alternate ideas at once is maturity. We don’t need to get angry; we need to get out of the judgy storyline that says “everyone needs to see it the way I see it”. We need to be willing to apply curiosity in place of judgment; to scratch our heads until we finally see it, like those optical illusions that can be the “both / and”, depending on perspective.

The naive person thinks they need everyone to think like them; to believe in the same God as them, to hold the same politics as them. In Imago Therapy, we call this symbiosis. “You and I are One and I’m the one.” The growth path out of symbiosis is differentiation. “You and I are two, and of course we see it differently.” “Tell me your perspective. 

If humans could all do this consistently, all over the world, our prayers for peace would be answered.

May it be so.

Inspired by a paper written by my colleague, Bruce Crapuchettes, Ph.D.

Dean of the Imago Faculty from 2003 to 2005.

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