This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at

Dialogue: The Continuing Imperative

Charles L. Rassieur MC'60

The passion was there, the clarity was there, and the disagreement was there. But the lack of bombast and personal attack was a welcome change from the viciousness of much of the contemporary political scene. The dialogue was civil. It was gracious. It was educational.1

We believe that the solution to most smoking issues can be found in accommodation, in finding ways in which smokers and nonsmokers can coexist peacefully. And we encourage dialogue and discussion that will help solve the issues without government intervention.2

These two opening quotations illustrate the wide-ranging relevance of the subject of this essay. The first quotation describes a forum on a college campus involving Richard Thornburgh, former United States Attorney General, governor of Pennsylvania, and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations; and Juan Williams, the authorized biographer of Thurgood Marshall. The other quotation comes from a newspaper advertisement appealing for dialogue to resolve the differences between those who do not smoke and those who wish to be able to continue their practice of smoking. In addition to these two quotations, one may also consider the timely relevance of a recent article on an editorial page entitled, "O.J. trial reflects deeper racial troubles."

We need conversation between a white leadership that concedes the genuineness of black achievement and is willing to understand the racial barriers that impede its consolidation and advance, and a black leadership that concedes not all black shortfalls are the work of others' malevolence and will represent the continuing harms of racism carefully to whites it credits with honest concern.3

Clearly there is hardly an area of personal and public life today that does not call out for or could not benefit from dialogue.

Setting the Stage

I am a Presbyterian minister whose first lessons in church history were learned from Charles Speel at Monmouth College. It was not long in those classes before it became altogether clear that much of church history is filled with controversy, debate, politics, and even ill will and bitterness toward other Christians. One cannot help wondering how the church and, for that matter, world history might have been written differently had our forebears known and practiced more consistently and thoroughly the basic elements of genuine dialogue. Furthermore, the dramatic possibilities resulting from dialogue in more recent history in this century have rightly been noted: "If Jews and Christians had been speaking to each other. . . it is possible that the Holocaust might never have happened."4

I am also a licensed psychologist, a marriage and family therapist, and a divorce mediator in Minnesota, and conduct a counseling ministry out of several church locations. Misunderstanding, hurtful and blocked communication, antagonism, alienation, and bitterness are commonplace for the majority of the persons who invite me as a professional therapist into their private lives. My conclusion is that most of those persons are invariably missing effective dialogue in the important relationships in their lives, and the price being paid for that deprivation of effective dialogue often includes some form of diagnosable mental illness. Carl Jung (1933:264) once made the observation that "Among all my patients in the second half of life--that is to say, over thirty-five--there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life." However, I am persuaded from over two decades of the practice of counseling psychology that the fundamental cause for much so-called mental illness can in most instances be traced to conflicted, destructive, or nonexistent communication between persons, or in other words the loss of respectful relationships and effective dialogue. Moreover, it is more often the case than not that married persons who come for counseling usually attribute most of the breakdown in their relationship to "communication problems." It is safe to say that most people know all too well how to talk at each other, how to start a fight with each other, and how to beat up on each other verbally if not physically, but most persons who make their way to a counselor or a psychologist are missing in their life true or genuine dialogue, especially with the people who are closest to them at home, at work, or in their church.

Already, the preliminary jockeying for the national 1996 elections has begun. During that regular two- and four-year ritual in the life of our country, hardly ever does anything like dialogue occur, even in so-called debates between presidential candidates and between those running for lesser offices. In fact, we have become so used to politicians attacking each other that it becomes the subject matter for headlines when politicians agree to have a conversation with each other marked by civility and mutual respect for what each is trying to say. Just that was the case when President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich had an unusually conciliatory meeting and conversation in New Hampshire in June, 1995. One newspaper ran its leading headline on the front page, "Clinton and Gingrich make nice," and noted that the ". . . encounter (was) so muted, so polite and so carefully conciliatory that it was often hard to distinguish the sharp philosophical differences between the two." More importantly, Gingrich appealed to the audience, "So, I hope with your permission, the president and I will now have a dialogue with you and maybe the country can learn a little bit about working together, not just buying commercials and attacking each other."5 It was even newsworthy in February, 1995, when the two senators from Minnesota, Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rod Grams, suggested they might try to find some middle ground of cooperation between them. Though they are on most issues ideological opposites from one another, the two senators let it be known to the press that they were going to talk on the telephone to see if they could find the time and a way to talk further about possible common ground between their political agendas.6 It is a commentary on our national life that dialogue is so rare that when dialogue becomes a possibility between two United States senators the event merits being reported in the main section of the newspaper.

While the church has traditionally preached a message of understanding and reconciliation, the church is too often one of the last places in our society where dialogue occurs. This challenge was echoed at the national meeting of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Minneapolis in 1995. Female Lutheran pastors used the occasion to recognize that they had been permitted to be ordained for twenty-five years since 1970. However, the earlier sense of unity felt by those first women to be ordained has been replaced by diversity and division among Lutheran female clergy. One of the female pastors explained about the division and separate meetings of women holding opposing views at the national gathering, "But today, there are differences in how we look at society, how we read the Bible, how we engage with society, over what is the mission of the church. . . . My hope is that the women at the two different gatherings find a way to talk to each other."7

However, in spite of all that is being said these days about dialogue, I am not persuaded that many persons have a real understanding of the nature of dialogue. Furthermore, it has been my observation that few persons have a clear vision of the possibilities for what could happen from the most personal to the national and international levels should dialogue be practiced and occur more widely. So, the purpose of this essay is to define and discuss eight essential features of dialogue, and then to explore the application of dialogue to some areas critically in need today of in-depth human meeting, understanding, and communication. Those areas include marriage, various arenas of conflict from divorce to international negotiations, and debate within the church.

Essential Marks of Dialogue

The dictionary on my desk defines dialogue as a conversation between two or more persons or characters in a novel. A dialogue can also designate the exchange of ideas, especially on a political issue.8 Drama and literature have offered classic examples of dialogue as an effective narrative device. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus of the fifth-century B.C. was the first to introduce dialogue as a device for exchange between two actors or between an actor and a chorus. The Greeks also used dialogue as a method for logical exchange in the search for further knowledge and understanding. The Dialogues of Plato are notable classical examples of question and answer responses for the purpose of philosophical reasoning.9 These early examples of dialogue continue to characterize popular contemporary notions of the nature and use of dialogue. Almost any kind of exchange or conversation between two persons is thought by many to be a dialogue. And, the question and answer method of logical debate is a favorite way for most persons to talk with one another. Indeed, logical questioning and answering may very well describe virtually the full and limited repertoire of conversational skills for most persons. Therefore, it is not surprising that dialogue, when understood and practiced as an exercise in logical questioning and answering, very easily and often degenerates into interrogation and debate. Legion are the examples of how attempts at so-called dialogue have failed when communication deteriorates into logical examinations that turn living rooms, business offices, and board rooms into "court rooms." The all too common human experience is that conversation or communication naively labeled dialogue can at its worst have very disastrous consequences. This destructive power of the tongue has been well known for thousands of years as reflected by the Psalmist's reference to the tongue as being as sharp as a serpent's tongue and like a sharp razor, with the writer of Proverbs adding that the tongue is capable of such perverseness that it can even break the spirit!10

It is indeed ironic that the literary and dramatic device of dialogue used by the Greeks and later generations in the quest for truth also became and continues to be the primary means to human misunderstanding, bitterness, enmity, and tragic divisiveness. We have learned something about finding logical truth through dialogue and debate. But, it can safely be stated without fear of contradiction that hardly anything has more eluded human efforts for thousands of years than how to use and engage in dialogue in such a way that the human spirit is not broken and precious human relationships are nurtured and strengthened. In those all too rare instances when dialogue does lead to understanding, respect, and effective collaboration, dialogue has served a truth that is on a distinctly higher order than any truth sought or found through logical debate.

Based on the conviction that dialogue does not have to become destructive and divisive, and that indeed the true purpose of dialogue is precisely for the sake of understanding, respect, and collaboration, this essay turns now to a discussion of essential characteristics or marks of such constructive dialogue. My dependence upon the work of the Jewish philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber, will be evident. My views about dialogue have also been strongly influenced by my professional experience as a minister and psychologist working and consulting with persons and groups in conflict. Moreover, my own personal experiences relating to the persons closest to me in my family and work have and continue to teach me much about the essential nature of effective dialogue that develops and enhances human relationships.

Martin Buber: I and Thou

Martin Buber is perhaps the single most influential contributor to modern thought regarding communication and understanding the nature of dialogue. Born in Vienna in 1878, Buber became the leading interpreter of Hasidism and Jewish mysticism. His thought further developed until he articulated a philosophy emphasizing the "encounter" between the person, the "I," and God, the "Thou." In Buber's thought a true encounter between persons could also be an I-Thou relationship. So-called "I-It" relationships objectify the other, treating the other person as a separate thing.

Buber's major thesis was that "life is meeting." He described a tragic incident in which a troubled young man came to seek his advice. Buber was preoccupied and talked with him, but did not really "meet" him. The young man went away and committed suicide. Salvation, for Buber, could not be found by glorifying the individual or the collective, but in relationship. In "open dialogue," not an "unmasking" of the "adversary," he saw the only hope for the future (Kirschenbaum and Henderson 1989:41-42).

Buber's analysis of the "between," the encounter between the I and an object or another person led him to at least three assertions informative to this essay. First, the I-Thou encounter of dialogue envisioned by Buber requires the participation of one's total being, which inherently must involve risk for one to be in dialogue. So, Buber (1937:10) clearly states: "This is the risk: the primary word (I-Thou) can only be spoken with the whole being. He who gives himself to it may withhold nothing of himself."

Secondly, Buber makes a very significant correction of the conventional understanding and usage of the term empathy. Buber argues that empathy requires a loss of or exclusion of one's own experience in order to "get inside," as it were, of the other person's or the other object's experience for the sake of dialogue and understanding. So, in contradistinction to empathy Buber describes "inclusion" as one of the requirements for dialogue. Inclusion affirms the listener's own experience, and in fact calls for the listener not to lose hold of one's own unique reality.

Inclusion is the opposite of this [empathy]. It is the extension of one's own concreteness, the fulfillment of the actual situation of life, the complete presence of the reality in which one participates. Its elements are, first, a relation, of no matter what kind, between two persons, second, an event experienced by them in common, in which at least one of them actively participates, and, third, the fact that this one person, without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other.

A relation between persons that is characterized in more or less degree by the element of inclusion may be termed a dialogical relation (Buber 1965:97).

A third important assertion by Buber for our purposes in this essay relates to God, the eternal Thou, that is encountered through dialogue, the genuine meeting of persons. Buber explains, "The extended lines of relations meet in the eternal Thou. Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou; by means of every particular Thou the primary word addresses the eternal Thou" (Buber 1937:75). Elsewhere, Buber (1965:30) clarified further the theological dimensions of the dialogical meeting between persons:

Only he who himself turns to the other human being and opens himself to him receives the world in him. Only the being whose otherness, accepted by my being, lives and faces me in the whole compression of existence, brings the radiance of eternity to me. Only when two say to one another with all that they are, "It is Thou," is the indwelling of the Present Being between them.

Reuel Howe (1963:66) has offered a major interpretation of Buber's work for a Christian understanding of communication and dialogue. Howe summarizes the contribution of Buber's thinking for Christians:

Dialogue offers the only possibility for a relation between the thou of the other person and I of myself. I can only speak to him and leave him free to respond, and out of that exchange we may both be called forth as persons in a relationship of mutual trust. The only hope for the restoration of persons who have attempted escape by either image-building or ego-sacrificing is their recovery of the power of dialogue which makes these kinds of escapes unnecessary.

This, then, is the purpose of dialogue: the calling forth of persons in order that they may be reunited with one another, know the truth, and love God, man and themselves. We move toward the realization of this purpose when we speak responsibly out of what we know, when we help others to say Yes and No as responsibly as possible, and when we keep the forms of our life open to life itself.

Necessary Characteristics of Dialogue

My intention at this point is to outline and discuss the essential characteristics of what I have come to understand about genuine dialogue between persons. These conclusions come in part from such sources as Martin Buber and Reuel Howe, but also from over thirty years as a minister and over twenty years as a professional counselor listening to persons struggling to recover the meaning of dialogue in their lives and in the relationships that mean the most to them. However, some of what I will try to describe came back to me a few days ago when I was reading an old sermon preached in November, 1967. I was serving a church in Baltimore then that was located in what back then was euphemistically called a "racially changing neighborhood." More accurately, the black community was rapidly replacing the white community, and most of the church membership no longer lived in the neighborhood. The ministry of the church and a large part of my work was relating to the new black residents of the community. In the sermon I recounted an incident that had occurred while I was talking to one of the new children living near the church.

. . . when I visited with one of our neighborhood girls two months ago. We were talking about the common, everyday things on everyone's mind when, after ten minutes, she looked directly at me and said, "I like you." "I like you," I responded. Then she replied, "Some colored people don't like white people, but I like you, and I know there are good white people."

I do not tell that story here in order to suggest that I had done a laudable piece of work getting a young black girl to see what nice people we "white folks" are. Not at all, because that was not the point or intention of my conversation with her. Something far more significant, far more profound happened in those few minutes of dialogical encounter. In that brief conversation two persons met from radically different cultures, certainly black-white but also female-male and child-adult cultures, and in so doing hundreds and thousands of years of cultural differences were transcended, if just momentarily. Both of us took risks, no matter how great or how small, but took risks to be honest enough for a genuine encounter of respect for the other person. Her saying to me that she liked me was more than a passing, flattering comment. She, in fact, was addressing me across the broadening gulfs of age, race, and gender, and I knew that I had been unmistakably encountered by a Thou. And, with genuineness and risk I responded back across those yawning gulfs of age, race, and gender. In dialogue trust had been confirmed. And, in that moment of dialogue, there was something distinctly transcendent and holy. Finally, it must be noted that the girl saying she liked me is not what made it a dialogical encounter. It could just as surely have been a dialogical encounter if she had as honestly and directly addressed me with the rage of the several cultures dividing us and exclaimed, "I hate you!" And, if I had heard and genuinely received such a message, we both might have been significantly changed by such a meeting of Thou and Thou. But, in this case, that is not how the exchange occurred. Obviously, I'll never know what that meeting ever meant for that girl. But, I know that I went home so changed that two months later I had to talk about it in a sermon, and nearly twenty-seven years later I am still talking here about that rich moment of dialogue!

So, from my perspective I see at least eight distinctive features that characterize dialogue for today. These elements are not intended to describe formal conversations or elaborately planned settings. Rather, dialogue is envisioned here as a meeting between two or more persons that can occur in any setting, at any time, and does not necessarily require words!

1. Attentive and respectful valuing of the other. I normally find it easy to have good and positive feelings about people whose behavior is favorable toward me. Most often I like those who are agreeable with me. When people's behavior is disturbing to me, I may have a wide range of feelings including rage, anger, frustration, or impatience.

Attentive and respectful valuing of the other person can, however, occur from my side regardless of the feelings I may have toward a person. Though it can be easier to be respectful of someone I like, the attitude of respectful valuing can still be maintained toward a person whose behavior is disturbing to me. Respectful valuing means that I take the person seriously while assuming that that person has important concerns and is making decisions that are sensible from her or his point of view.

Attentiveness to the other person is necessary to valuing and respecting the person. It is ironic that many persons show little attentiveness to persons in their family or at work whom they essentially like. Many of us are too busy to be attentive, or we are easily distracted by so much that is around us, like television, magazines, and newspapers. Consequently, often too little dialogue if any ever occurs between persons who have lived with each other for years, and who may even think that they are close to each other without recognizing how really far apart they are!

Dialogue particularly cannot occur when, in the course of bitter or violent conflict between persons, parties, or even nations, the other person is dehumanized and characterized as evil or otherwise worthy of severe disrespect. So, we bomb and destroy the cities of "the enemy, and the men, women, and children of the enemy," not other human beings like ourselves. Even in group or personal conflicts in the workplace or at church, the opposition or adversary is often dehumanized as being supposedly seriously psychologically flawed with impaired reasoning, feelings, or thinking. These characterizations of the person or group with whom we are in conflict primarily serve to justify our discounting the other's views, feelings, or concerns. Dialogue, in such instances, does not occur. Many words may be exchanged, but there will be little or no dialogue, because the "enemy" or the adversary has been dismissed as unworthy of respect.

2. Valuing the encounter and the relationship. I may have much respect for another person but have no desire to be in any kind of relationship with that person. If that is the case, dialogue is not going to occur, even if that person and I exchange many words. If I am stopped by the police for speeding or violating some law while driving, I respect the law officer even though I do not want at all to have the relationship with the officer. In a different situation, I have been called on the telephone, sometimes at supper time, by persons wanting to sell me something. Even though I can respect and value the person, despite how irritated I am, no dialogue is going to occur between us especially because I do not want to be in the relationship. A similar situation may also occur at my front door, when unwanted solicitors try to engage me about religion or politics or ask me for money. In those situations, there certainly is conversation, but, because I do not value the encounter, there is no dialogue.

On the other hand, there can be a rich meeting of I and Thou in dialogue when it is a meeting that all persons involved, for whatever reasons, value as significant and worthy of the investment of themselves, their time and energy, even if for just a brief moment. Valuing the encounter will begin as an attitude in one's mind, but then certain behaviors will naturally reflect and confirm the importance of the meeting. Consistently being on time sends the message that the relationship is a high priority. Likewise, often being late can signal that one does not care much about the other person. Other behaviors can also be very effective in communicating the importance of a relationship, such as turning off the television, putting down the newspaper, and making time or taking extra time for the relationship.

In most situations, the extent and depth of the dialogue will be enriched when the value of the encounter is verbalized between the person or the parties. When it is clearly said in words that the meeting and the relationship are important or significant to both persons, the possibilities for genuine dialogue are greatly enhanced.

3. Being open to personal change. Many words may go back and forth between persons, but if there is resolve not to be changed by the encounter or by what is said, then no dialogue can occur between persons. Most often there is no genuine dialogue, even despite the claims to the contrary, when a parent, teacher, or an employer has a conversation with a child, student, or employee, because the person in the so-called superior position has no intention of being changed by the meeting. Instead, the intention is often that the person in the "inferior" position, namely the child, student, or the employee, will be the one who will somehow change or be changed as a result of the conversation.

Another attitude is possible, even when there is a disparity or unevenness between the social roles of the persons involved. It is possible for a parent to approach a child with a genuine openness to the possibility of being changed through the encounter with one's child. Likewise, a teacher can meet a student in an attitude of being open to the possibility of learning something from the student or otherwise being changed in feeling or attitude through the encounter with the student.

Persons or groups in conflict typically find it most difficult even to consider any possibility of being changed by the other person. Positions are staked out and held to firmly and rigidly. Indeed, much energy and strategizing is devoted to ensuring that one will not change and that the other must change. Such inflexibility is commonplace, unfortunately, in negotiations at all levels from the international level to the domestic scene between wives and husbands. Openness to change within oneself while engaging and encountering any adversary at least introduces the possibility for a surprisingly fruitful and productive dialogue.

4. Accepting the risk of self-disclosure. Encounter which is a dialogue cannot avoid the revealing of some aspect of oneself to the other. Dialogue necessarily involves being seen and apprehended by the other, most likely not fully, but nonetheless in some manner being disclosed to the other. Following the dialogue, there are fewer secrets despite how much remains to be revealed.

Self-disclosure does not necessarily require words. Self-disclosing dialogue may even occur among strangers. I recall my anxious waiting a few years ago in a hospital outside of the surgery suite during an operation on my son. There were other anxious family members in the same room, relatives of other patients also undergoing surgery that day. Words were certainly exchanged with some persons, but dialogue also occurred wordlessly, silently in the knowing glance or look between me and members of other families that exchanged mutually held concerns and anxieties. Those silent communications were surely self-disclosing; they were unquestionably dialogical communications.

There is much at stake when we reveal a bit of ourselves to another person. In the least we risk being shamed for what will now be known to the other, because our flaws are no longer a secret. There is also the risk from making ourselves vulnerable to the other. We do not know what the other person will do with what has been revealed about us. Yet, there is no way safely to engage in dialogue. Both persons or parties assume the risk that in the process of encounter they leave themselves vulnerable to the other.

Because of the inherent risk in all dialogue, many choose to avoid the meeting, the encounter. So, why undertake the risk? Why let oneself become vulnerable to shame and hurt or possible manipulation? In the least, the risk of dialogue is accepted, because too high a price has or will be paid for continuing without dialogical communication. The risks can no longer outweigh the benefits of finally talking honestly, being in dialogue, with each other.

5. Affirming the discipline of dialogue. Meeting and communication that result in understanding, respect, and collaboration ordinarily do not just happen. Such dialogue can certainly happen by chance, but such occurrences do not happen often.

A primary obstacle to dialogue between persons is human defensiveness. No one is free of defensiveness. Indeed, it would be unnatural for a person not to have the capacity to respond defensively, protectively or even hostilely, to a perceived attack. It is psychologically healthy to have the capacity to respond defensively to a physical or verbal attack. Indeed, the defensive response appears at such an early age in children and occurs so naturally in most all human behavior that one could easily conclude that defensiveness is instinctive, somehow inherently part of being human. Consequently, in any meeting between persons, there is always the present potential and risk for defensive responses to occur. And, to compound the problem, a defensive response may occur despite the most charitable intentions of the other speaker. Defensive responses are always the result of the listener's perceptions and not the result of the speaker's intentions. So, it is no wonder that people can suddenly be surprised to find themselves in conflict despite their very best efforts to engage in an understanding dialogue.

Dialogue most often is a choice that requires discipline. Though defensive and attacking responses may seem instinctively natural, a person can choose to respond differently and thereby choose dialogue. That choice for dialogue is made because one knows that an attacking response will elicit or provoke a similar defensive response in the other person, and productive dialogue and understanding will be lost. One chooses the discipline of understanding dialogue because the gains of mutual respect and collaboration are recognized to be so much greater than the momentarily perceived benefits of defensively fighting back.

6. Seeking and communicating understanding. Dialogue requires seeing the world through the other person's eyes and experience while at the same time not losing one's own concrete reality. There can be no dialogue when such viewing of the world as the other person views the world does not occur.

Dialogue does not occur in most conversations, because persons aim for agreement instead of understanding. It is assumed that if one person can get the other person to agree then it has been a successful dialogue. Unfortunately, not only has dialogue failed to occur, but the lack of mutual understanding may lead to an alienated relationship or conflict. It has been my observation and conclusion that most conflict is due not so much to a failure to reach agreement but a failure to achieve and communicate understanding. At least as important if not more important to most persons is not agreement so much as being understood.

Furthermore, one can see the world as another sees the world without agreeing with the other's perspective or conclusions. Many persons fear that if they say back to the other person what the other has just said that one is communicating agreement. On the contrary, instead of agreement one is communicating something far more powerful; one is communicating understanding and thereby achieving one of the essential prerequisites for dialogue.

It is strange but true that very little understanding is communicated when one seeks to reassure the other with the words, "I know just what you mean; I understand how you feel." Unless we say back for possible correction what it is we think we understand, we only confirm that we are much more interested in our own assumptions than we are in the other person's experience and view of reality. Seeking and communicating understanding do not occur without the discipline that is essential to dialogue.

7. Observing the boundaries of the relationship. Every dialogical meeting between persons has necessary boundaries. The circumstances of the meeting obviously define certain, inherent limitations. There can be grieving over a brief or chance encounter marked by rich dialogue that both persons know is never likely to occur again. In our family, we have been delighted by our contacts in person with a family that lives in Germany. We have been in their home on two occasions, and their family members have been in our home three times. But, geographic distance is an inescapable boundary that is felt to be quite limiting to a continuing sense of warm dialogue between our two families.

But, besides the natural boundaries are the boundaries observed out of discipline for the sake of respect and personal safety in the dialogue. Trust is the critical issue here. Without trust there can be no dialogue. Most fundamental is that each person be certain that one will not be taken advantage of nor violated in the process of the dialogue. The dialogical meeting and relationship are essentially a safe place assured by boundaries on the circumstances, boundaries on the conduct of the dialogue, and boundaries on the behavior of the participants.

The boundary of respect for the other person is careful also about the boundary of assuming responsibility for the other person. When respect moves over the line and becomes protective care taking, the dialogue is at risk. Respectful dialogue can deteriorate to manipulation if responses become calculated to elicit certain reactions from the other or to avoid what one assumes will be certain reactions. Respectful boundaries for dialogue convey that both persons are safe in the dialogue and free from manipulation. Moreover, effective dialogical boundaries assure all persons in the meeting that they are respected as responsible persons, which enhances even more the dialogical process.

8. Recognizing the spiritual dimension of dialogue. I am persuaded that somehow God, the eternal Thou, is surely present in every dialogue. Obviously, such a statement is a faith statement that is beyond proof, and reflects certain Judeo-Christian convictions.

A fundamental assumption in the Bible is that God is a god in relation with creation and particularly in relation with human beings. The Bible is the spiritual record of a unique part of God's history of being in relationship with humans through the history of a particular people, the Jews, and later other groups of people through the Christian faith. Throughout the scriptures God is consistently viewed as not just a creator, but as a God staying in relationship and continually self-disclosing Godself and God's purpose. God's relationship with God's people has been truly dialogical, the communication of being with being. Indeed, that dialogical communication was most epitomized, Christians believe, when the "Word" of God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was the ultimate Word of God's dialogue with human beings.

One may borrow the language of theologian Paul Tillich (1951:235ff.) and describe God as not only the ground of being, but also the ground of dialogue. Dialogue is defined by God and has its beginning and ending in God. There would be no dialogue were not God a god of relationship. God did not have to create, but by creating God placed objects and creatures in relationship with God and with each other. Indeed, one could say that the essential life envisioned by God is a life of encounter, meeting, and dialogue, I-Thou.

Therefore, all dialogue is grounded in God, whether or not God is named. Furthermore, for at least this reason, dialogue takes on a power of its own so that it is not unusual for changes to occur through the course of dialogue that were never anticipated by the participants. Some persons speaking from a faith perspective have even been so bold as to call such changes miracles, there being no other term adequate to describe the dramatic results of honest and respectful and understanding encounter between persons.

Finally, it must be said that this particular characteristic of genuine dialogue is quite obviously different from the other characteristics, because it does not refer to or describe any human attitudes or behaviors as the other seven characteristics do. God, the eternal Thou, is simply present in all dialogues. God is not "brought in" or somehow "designed in" to encounter or meeting. Consequently, one can confidently state that all dialogue is of God, and participates in God's purpose by giving expression to God's intention for creative, respectful meetings between persons.


I submit that wherever dialogue occurs the eight characteristics or elements of dialogue just discussed will somehow be present. Those characteristics describe essential attitudes and behaviors of participants as well characteristics of the dialogical process itself. Without these aspects of dialogue there surely can be meeting and conversation between people, but that may very likely be all that can happen. Certainly, without the essentials of dialogue, people can still live and work with each other. But such surface interaction will in most instances be just a co-existence, not meetings marked by significant depth. Indeed, people without much if any dialogue in their relationships at home and work often say that they feel lonely and isolated from those with whom they spend most of their days and their years.

The eight characteristics described here for dialogue are, when combined together, a powerful means for change! Extraordinary creativity and collaboration among family members and workplace colleagues can be generated from a fully dialogical process. When persons really hear each other, communicate genuine interest and concern for others, and are willing to be changed in their relationships with one another, enormous strides can be taken toward eliminating barriers of alienation that have existed for years. So, what are the possibilities for change through genuine dialogue? What are some of the areas today where the introduction of dialogue could make a promising difference? We shall address those questions now in the areas of marriage, conflict management, and the life of the church.

The Imperative for the Recovery of Dialogue in MarriageUnfortunately, it is far too self-evident that the institution of marriage has been in trouble for decades in this country. It is common knowledge that nearly one marriage in two fails. Because marriage is such a great risk, it should be no surprise that the generation thirty-five years old and younger has found "living together" a far more appealing arrangement for shared companionship than a legal commitment their divorced parents entered only a generation earlier.

Marriage is a complex relationship, to say the least, and no single cause can be isolated as the reason for the fragility of marital commitments. As a marriage therapist, I have worked with conflicted couples for over twenty years, and it is my contention that one of the most significant problems that troubles most marriages today is the breakdown in the capacity for spouses to engage in dialogue, to talk with each other and communicate at a level that will deepen and enhance marital intimacy.

Social scientist Lillian Rubin (1983) interviewed one hundred fifty married couples in order to see how they were coping with the pressures and changes in their marriage. Rubin wrote a book based on her research, and entitled it Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together. Rubin's title conveys the truth of what every other marriage therapist and I encounter on a regular basis. Many wives and husbands are intimate strangers, having lost touch with one another years ago. Two or three times a year I teach a communication course, and the course includes the assignment between sessions for each couple to spend fifteen minutes with each other practicing their new communication skills, at least four times during the week between class sessions. When I give that assignment the first time, invariably some couples roll their eyes and exclaim, "Do you expect us to talk to each other in this course? We don't have time. We're too busy to communicate with each other!"

The characteristics of genuine dialogue presented above can be powerful ways for married couples to rediscover each other and revitalize their marriage. But, there are many demands upon modern marriage that seem intentionally designed to sabotage the dialogue that is required for the nurturing of a marital relationship. Because of all of the varied commitments of family members today, often families only meet at the refrigerator door. And, too many couples with children discover too late that they devoted their time and energy mainly to their children, and then when the children are grown and gone they have hardly any marriage to return to for just the two of them.

Many couples are going to counseling or marriage enrichment workshops in order to recover for their marriage the practice of genuine dialogue. They want to become attentive and respectful of each other again, to communicate with each other the high priority they place on their marriage, and to learn again how to disclose who they are in the spirit of openness to being changed by their intimate relationship. At the heart of the dialogue that couples are rediscovering in their marriage is the skill of communicating understanding that overcomes years of defensive distancing.

Minister and marriage therapist Harville Hendrix has written a best-selling book for couples entitled Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. In this book, Hendrix describes how he teaches couples to listen to each other in a new way that communicates understanding and acceptance. Hendrix calls it a mirroring exercise. Though, as he notes, it is a deceptively simple exercise, Hendrix (1988:144) properly emphasizes that ". . . this deliberate style of communication is so foreign to most couples that it usually requires a great deal of practice." In the exercise one of the spouses makes a declarative statement about a personal feeling or concern. The other spouse listens, makes a summary statement back of what the other just said, and then asks, "Am I understanding you correctly?" Such an exercise is especially difficult when the first spouse expresses a concern that is an observation somehow about the other spouse. Instinctive defensiveness wants to reply quite a few other things than to say back, "You are upset when I forget to turn off the lights before coming to bed." Hendrix (1988:146-147) has concluded from his observation of many couples trying to learn this essential exercise for dialogue. ". . . there is a tremendous satisfaction in simply being heard, in knowing that your message has been received exactly as you sent it. This is a rare phenomenon in most marriages." Hendrix' observation is exactly what I, too, regularly see in the marriages of the couples who come to me for therapy.

The names of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson (Masters, Johnson and Kolodny 1986) have become virtually synonymous with sex therapy and research into human sexuality. It was especially noteworthy that in one of their books on sex and human loving, among the chapters on sexual anatomy and varieties of sexual behavior, was a whole chapter devoted to "Intimacy and Communication Skills"! In that chapter, before coming to the last section on "Talking about Sex," the authors first take up such matters as self-disclosure and the "art" of listening. Listening, which is critically essential for any dialogical process, is summarized by Masters and Johnson (1986:257-258) with several points that include: effective listening requires your undivided attention, effective listening is an active rather than passive process, effective listeners are patient, and you do not have to agree in order to listen. Certainly these are points that would greatly enhance any dialogical process.

It is my professional conviction that the recovery of the discipline of dialogue in modern marriages would unquestionably help most marriages and give couples essential tools for dealing and coping with the mounting pressures on their marital relationship. Furthermore, I am persuaded that if couples could recover the skills of dialogue, many of their problems would become far more manageable and would not necessarily need to lead, as so often happens, to increasing misunderstanding, alienation, and eventual dissolution of the marriage.

The Imperative for the Recovery of Dialogue in Conflict Management

Surely there are obvious, exciting possibilities for how the principles of dialogue, when recovered in a marriage, can lead to deepened understanding, commitment, and intimacy. But, what about conflict, whether it be in the home, in the office or work place, between labor unions and major corporations, or between nations? Clearly, the aim in those conflict situations is not to deepen intimacy and companionship. The goal in the midst of those major conflicted relationships for each party to achieve the best agreement that can be negotiated. And often quite an important second goal is to conclude the negotiations on a sufficiently harmonious note so any necessary or continuing future communications with each other will be possible with at least a degree of mutual respect and workable politeness.

I raise these points here out of my personal acquaintance and observance of some of the recent developments toward applying the principles of dialogue to conflict management and mediation. Most recently, I have completed training through the American Arbitration Association to be a divorce mediator. Divorce mediation uniquely combines the necessary characteristics of dialogue.

Many couples who are dissolving their marriage now choose divorce mediation as an alternative to negotiating through their lawyers and incurring excessive legal fees while concluding their legal marriage often on an adversarial note. The possibility for later productive and respectful communication over such matters as rearing the children is in jeopardy when an adversarial legal atmosphere leads to deeper bitterness. Rather, highly structured dialogue monitored by a neutral mediator sets a climate for the wife and husband to listen carefully to each other's needs and concerns as they work out together what seems most fair to each of them about the division of their assets. Because divorce mediation is voluntary, participation in the process conveys a certain valuing of the meeting and a certain respect for one's spouse besides the expectation that it is possible to reach agreement on some if not all vitally important issues. It is no wonder, because of the dialogical principles inherent in the divorce mediation process, that mediators observe conflicted spouses often demonstrating a graciousness and generosity of spirit toward each other, despite the animosity that can be part of the dissolution of a marriage.

The essentials of dialogue are also finding their way into the work setting where collaborative teamwork is highly valued. Sherod Miller and Phyllis Miller (1994) have been creative innovators in applying the basic characteristics of dialogue to the corporate environment. The Millers have developed a curriculum for human resources trainers as well as psychologists, like myself, to use in teaching workers collaborative team skills.

The Millers' curriculum, which can be taught in day- or day-and-a-half- long workshops, recognizes important aspects about dialogue. The curriculum, for one thing, demonstrates that dialogue will be more likely to occur when persons learn certain skills for speaking and for listening. The Millers' curriculum also illustrates the encouraging and hopeful fact that those skills are teachable and learnable! And, in the short space of seven to twelve hours of training, a group of workers or team members in any setting will have the most powerful tools that the behavioral sciences can offer for dialogue that leads to increased understanding, more effective decision-making, and a deeper sense of mutual cooperation and shared commitment among team members.

But, particularly useful in the Millers' model is their application of principles of dialogue for resolving issues of serious dispute or conflict. The discipline of dialogue, when used to elicit full communication in a carefully structured process, enables team workers to work through difficult issues and to reach decisions that all can support. The Millers' model convincingly shows that dialogue is the most hopeful tool for resolving conflict in the work setting.

Literature coming from the Harvard Negotiation Project further underscores the primacy of dialogical principles for effective negotiation, even in the international arena. Two of the most notable books based on the work done at the Harvard Negotiation Project were co-authored by Roger Fisher (Fisher and Brown 1988; Fisher, Ury and Patton 1991), a recognized expert on the principle of negotiation between foreign countries, particularly during times of armed conflict. Fisher's reliance and that of his colleagues upon a dialogical approach to negotiation at all levels of conflict is well illustrated by the observation about the necessity for listening:

Active listening improves not only what you hear, but also what they say. If you pay attention and interrupt occasionally to say, "Did I understand correctly that you are saying that. . . ?" the other side will realize that they are not just killing time, not just going through a routine. They will also feel the satisfaction of being heard and understood. It has been said that the cheapest concession you can make to the other side is to let them know they have been heard (Fisher, Ury and Patton 1991:34).

The Imperative for the Recovery of Dialogue in the Church

The history of the Christian church is replete with division and controversy. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity which is taken for granted now by most churchgoers, took over three hundred years and much controversy for the church finally to formulate. I remember well studying in Charles Speel's church history course, and being intrigued by the politics over two similar-looking key words in the church debates of the fourth century A.D.: homoousios and homoiousios.

Convictions can hardly be any stronger or any deeper than among Christians. People who affirm the same scriptures and give assent to the same creeds can still view contemporary church and social issues from quite opposing perspectives. These differences can be especially alarming to those who feel that harmony should be of the highest priority for the church.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (P.C.U.S.A.), of which I have been an ordained minister for thirty-two years, is not unlike other mainline Protestant denominations that are facing serious debates that threaten to become very divisive. Most recently, the P.C.U.S.A. has had to deal at the highest levels with an organization outside the governing oversight of the denomination that publishes a newspaper many find inflammatory. Over the past year, efforts by the leaders of the P.C.U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Lay Committee (P.L.C.) to talk with each other and reach some agreement were a failure as trust between the two church groups deteriorated to a new low. And, this is not the first time that such efforts with the P.L.C. have failed. The General Assembly News of the P.C.U.S.A. notes, "Over the 30-year history of the Presbyterian Lay Committee there have been numerous conflicts between church leaders and the P.L.C. So far, none have resulted in a lasting 'reconciliation.'"1

However, the issue that has generated even deeper concern and controversy in the P.C.U.S.A. and other denominations is the debate over the ordination of homosexual persons who do not choose to remain celibate. Indeed, the 205th P.C.U.S.A. General Assembly declared a three year time of denomination-wide dialogue beginning in 1993. Author Sylvia Thorson-Smith has described some of the far-reaching implications of this debate.

As the Presbyterian Church moves toward the twenty-first century, no other human rights issue presents us with a more compelling need for resolution. Conflict over the status of gays and lesbians regularly embroils our congregations, presbyteries, synods, and General Assemblies. People on all sides of this issue describe their experience in language of pain and woundedness. The body of Christ suffers internal agony as its members seem to tear each other limb from limb (Thorson-Smith 1993:13).

The General Assembly call for denomination-wide dialogue has been variously observed throughout the P.C.U.S.A. Some presbyteries have sought to implement plans for intentional structured dialogue, while other presbyteries have not paid much attention, if any, to the opportunity for Presbyterians to engage one another in dialogue on an issue that may very well have a major impact on the future of the Presbyterian church. It is no wonder that President Thomas W. Gillespie sounded a cautious note when he spoke to the Princeton Theological Seminary community at its Opening Convocation in September, 1993. Gillespie's (1994:6 and 8) concerns included these observations:

It needs to be said that our faculty has agreed to respond to the call of the General Assembly with some apprehension. For one thing there is the fear that such a discussion will polarize the campus the way it has the church. . . . If we are disciplined and wise in the way we engage this challenge, we can all actually learn together. We may not persuade each other, but we will at least understand better why we think the way we do, as well as why those who disagree with us think as they do.

During this time of denomination wide discussion and dialogue, Presbyterians have been guided by a statement issued in 1992 by the General Assembly entitled: "Seeking to be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement." The one page document offers timely recommendations that reflect many essential dialogical principles. In that list of important guidelines Presbyterians in dialogue are urged, before voicing one's own position, first to state what one heard and ask for clarification. Presbyterians are also encouraged to share their own personal experiences while also remaining open to the vision that God holds for everyone. Thus Presbyterians are being asked to take the risk of self-disclosure while also being open to the possibility of being changed in accord with "God's vision" through the process of dialogue.

The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area has taken this designated time of dialogue very seriously, even setting aside generous amounts of presbytery meeting time for the purpose of structured dialogue. I, myself, have participated on a presbytery panel and in a sharing group, both of which were important opportunities for persons holding varying points of view to be heard in a valuing and respectful setting.

It has been my observation that, when dialogue truly occurs, the primary changes that take place are not necessarily the changes the participants had anticipated. Isolated from others, it is easy to formulate a rigid, inflexible position, and determine that one's opponent or adversary must finally adopt one's own position. However, something that defies exact definition often occurs when persons meet each other face to face, listen to one another's concerns, and seek full understanding of one another's positions and experiences. I doubt that I have changed anyone's mind in the church with whom I have dialogued about homosexuality. But, with gratitude, I have had positive experiences of dialogue about the topic that have greatly encouraged me about the healing in the church that can come from serious efforts to listen carefully and dialogue about some of our deepest convictions and concerns.

It may not be an overstatement to say that the landscape of American Protestantism could be significantly reshaped early in the 21st century by the success or the failure of efforts to engage in dialogue about homosexuality. Without effective dialogue in most of the denominations, the future looks bleak for the denominations to remain intact as they are now. Division and splintering of denominations could easily occur. Dialogue in the church is as critical and imperative now as it has ever been. The encouraging fact is that the church has the resources and the sacraments of a faith that can very effectively reinforce the dialogical principles of valuing the other person, seeking understanding, and being open to the power of the transcendent Thou who is present in every dialogical meeting of persons. And then, through dialogue, Christians holding widely divergent convictions will hopefully find it possible to stay together in the same church.


This essay has been an appeal for the recovery and wider practice of the principles of genuine dialogue. In virtually every realm and area of human relationships people engage in much talking at each other, and not often enough do they engage in dialogue that promises resolution of conflict, fully informed decisions, and deepened commitment and trust to working together toward common interests and goals. The exciting potential is that through a dialogical process divergent perspectives and ideas can lead to opportunities, choices, and options that previously had not occurred to anyone. Dialogue that listens carefully and is open to the possibility of significant change occurring somehow in the process offers a dynamic promise for the future. Or, to say it another way, through dialogue the future once again can open up in just those very situations and circumstances where before persons in conflict could not envision the future at all.

Dialogue is imperative at every level of our personal and public life together. And the fact remains that each of us has our own choice to make, whether we will take up the challenge and the discipline to risk being in creative and hopeful dialogue with the persons we encounter every day. There is much at stake in our world today counting on us to accept that challenge.

Works Cited

Buber, Martin. 1937. I and Thou. Edinburgh: Clark.

__________. 1965. Between Man and Man. New York: Macmillan.

Fisher, Roger, and Scott Brown. 1988. Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate. New York: Penguin Books.

Fisher, Roger, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. 1991. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gillespie, Thomas W. 1994. "Can We Talk about It?" The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, XV, 1:6 and 8.

Hendrix, Harville. 1988. Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. New York: Harper & Row.

Howe, Reuel L. 1963. The Miracle of Dialogue. New York: The Seabury Press.

Jung, Carl. 1933. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Kirschenbaum, Howard, and Valerie Land Henderson, eds. 1989. Carl Rogers: Dialogues. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Masters, William H., Virginia E. Johnson, and Robert C. Kolodny. 1986. Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Miller, Sherod, and Phyllis A. Miller. 1994. Collaborative Team Skills. Littleton, Colo.: Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc.

Rubin, Lillian B. 1983. Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together. New York: Harper & Row.

Thorson-Smith, Sylvia. 1993. Reconciling the Broken Silence: The Church in Dialogue on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Louisville, Kent.: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Tillich, Paul. 1951. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1. "Disagreement without diatribe," Muskingum College Bulletin, (Spring, 1995), 6.

2. From an advertisement in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 27, 1994, p. 3A.

3. Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 22, 1995, p. 11A.

4. "1150 Minnesota clergy travel to Holocaust Museum," Tie-Ins: News from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, July-August, 1995, p.5.

5. Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 12, 1995, pp. 1 and 5A.

6. Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 14, 1995 p. 4A.

7. Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 15, 1995, pp. 1 and 8B.

8. Webster's Desk Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Portland House, 1990), p.250.

9. See articles on Greek tragedy, Plato, and the dialogues of Plato in The Academic American Encyclopedia (Electronic Version). Danbury, Conn.: Grolier, Inc., 1993. See also The Dialogues of Plato (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), Benjamin Jowett, trans.

10. Psalms 52:2, 140:3, and Proverbs 15:4.

11. General Assembly News, July 22, 1995, p. 9.

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