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Techniques > Conversation > Types > Dialog

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



The purpose of dialog is to understand not just what is being said but why it is being said. And in order to understand why a thing is said, we must understand the person behind the words. And to do this, we must ask careful questions and listen deeply to the answers.

Dialog needs to be both a sensitive and open process. Sensitivity is needed to avoid psychological harm to the other person. Paradoxically, while being sensitive about others, we need to be less sensitive about ourselves, being open and ready to accept that which, in other situations, might hurt. This process of mutual concern and determination to explore our inner depths can lead to remarkable insights as well as breaking down many of the barriers between people.

You can start dialog with a simple question. When you ask why, it tips people into deeper reflection. And if you couple it with signs of respect, you encourage honest answers. Just saying something like 'That's interesting, what's the thought behind that?' can start the process of open talk. You can encourage it further by admitting weaknesses of your own. Be careful in this as the other person may see it as seeking therapy or exposing a vulnerability that can be used against you. You can even set the scene by talking first about openness before putting your route in the water.

An important part of this is to avoid criticism, which assumes the other person is bad or incompetent, and status games, where we seek to gain superiority over others. When we start with respect and the belief that people are well-intentioned, it is far more difficult to be insulted by them or to look down on them.

Some of the things you might do during a dialog session include:

  • Ask what is on their mind at the moment, for example what tends to keep them awake.
  • Ask about how they are feeling and what seems to be the cause of these emotions.
  • Ask what their thoughts are about something and how they came to their conclusions.
  • Ask what they are thinking about you or other people and why they hold these views.
  • Accept that their views are valid, even if they are critical or otherwise seem wrong. This does not make their views true (they are simply their views).
  • Seek the underlying beliefs, models, and other mental structures that they use.
  • When you theorise about their thinking process, test it with them.


What are the most important things in your life at the moment?

You said you are opposed to expansion. How does it make you feel uncomfortable?

Hmm. I can see how you could see me as being focused on a limited area. Perhaps I have been in certain circumstances. 


Dialog comes from two Greek words: dia, meaning 'through' (not 'two'), and logos, meaning 'words'. dialog is about communication through words. It does not just mean two people talking. In many ways, Socrates was one of the first known active proponents of dialog, as he questioned and challenged rather than stated and conserved.

Mostly, we wear masks that both present a social face to the world and also protect our vulnerable inner selves. Exposing the real person behind the mask is not something we do lightly and certainly not if we suspect that the other person may take advantage of our vulnerable state or turn out weaknesses against us.

Even more so than discussion, dialog is based in respect. Without respect, trust dies, and without trust, we are unlikely to admit to our failings, let alone show any weakness or uncertainty. Respect comes from accepting the other person as a normal, fallible human. It does not expect perfection. It also comes from self respect, where you can interact with others without feeling inferior and threatened. A natural interest is about status, of one's position in the pecking order of life. For dialog to take place, status must be forgotten. You must sit together as equals, replacing concern for who is superior with concern for the well-being of the other as you explore each other's minds.

The 19th century philosopher, Martin Buber, identified three factors that facilitated conversation about the you/I space between people rather than the more adversarial 'it/I' conversation about one another:

  • Total mutuality from one's partner
  • Open directness in the relationship
  • I/you connection with the other person

Dialog can take place at different levels. At a gentle depth we may admit to unimportant errors and give logical reason for our actions. Deeper in, we may admit fears. Lower still, there could be talk of life traumas. The level at which the dialog operates will depend on the trust between the people and how deep they both want to go. Generally, when one person express discomfort, the respect that the other person holds will lead them to back off.

In a good dialog session, we get out of ourselves, losing the sense of being inside our own bodies as we connect with the other person. This needs a level of trust.

Dialog is not therapy, though it can be therapeutic. In therapy, there is a doctor-patient relationship, with one baring their soul and the other making corrective adjustments. Conversations can be like this, such as when a person confides in another and the second person offers advice. Yet this is not full dialog, where both are in a state of personal openness.

Most of us could benefit greatly from more dialog in our lives. While its intensity may be exhausting, it is also invigorating and deeply satisfying. dialog can deepen relationships as we truly understand not just the other person but humanity as well. We can also gain deep insights into our selves and the therapeutic elements can be truly healing.

See also

Trust, Values

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