Love Between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path

The following excerpt is from Love Between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path (Shambhala Publications, 2019)

Dialogue is a special form of conversation that allows partners to maintain a mindful space, open to curiosity and uncertainty, in the midst of conflict and confusion, or when negative emotions are disrupting their ability to simply talk about a subject or discuss their ideas together. Dialogue requires the participation of two people. It is not a monologue or a tri-alogue. Consequently, dialogue sets up a natural condition for seeing yourself in someone else’s eyes because you are typically facing each other (unless you are on the phone) and looking into each other’s eyes or faces.

In describing dialogue – which is the central skill we help couples develop in Dialogue Therapy – I want to emphasize what a unique form of conversation it is, and how rarely it is used. Of course, you have probably heard of Plato’s Dialogues and you may think this kind of conversational style goes back to the Greeks. It does not. The foundation of asking questions, listening for answers, and then exploring topics has existed over millennia, but what is different about dialogue, as I am describing it, is that its goal is mutual discovery by being in contact with another, and not exploring a topic. Dialogue opens the possibility of changing your mind and transforming the way you think about something (including yourself), by seeing it through someone else’s eyes. It is also simply a tool for dealing with conflict respectfully and can be used  to avoid destructive emotional outbursts and enactments, but its larger possibilities include the kind of spiritual transformation that comes when you suddenly see the world, yourself, or something else from an entirely different point of view. That’s what I call “changing your mind.” It occurs rarely enough, these days, in conversations with others. When done well, dialogue is Noble Conversation in which you learn not to take your own reactivity personally and to feel capable of addressing the pain and suffering of yourself, another, or your relationship because you have the skill to remain alert and accepting of what arises.

On one hand, then, dialogue has the possibility of changing how you see and experience things, and on the other hand, it is a tool that may save you from an emotional explosion, a major misunderstanding, or a divorce. Some components of dialogue have been described by many psychologists and communications experts. Sometimes this kind of conscious conversation is called “active listening” or “conscious communication” although listening and communicating are but two aspects of dialogue. True dialogue is a method for maintaining a mindful gap (not merging, not a chasm) between you and another person you care about. Dialogue involves four skills that have to be learned and practiced:

  1. speaking for yourself,
  2. paraphrasing,
  3. being curious and asking questions,
  4. responding.

These are re-cycled through the dialogue until a new discovery or a decision is reached together. I will describe each of these in detail, but first let’s talk about the context in which dialogue should be used, even must be used, if you want to transform your relationship from disillusionment and power struggle into intimacy.

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