How to Communicate Better Using Dialogue

Com­mu­ni­cate Bet­ter: Dia­logue is a tool for self-explo­ration. It’s not a way to get oth­ers to behave, but rather a way to learn about yourself.

I’ve written a ton of articles about communication and dialogue. I’ve focused on how to communicate better in all of my books, and can state categorically that good communication skills are absolutely essential for building and maintaining a relationship.

The key to inner explo­ration is the will­ing­ness to seek out and lis­ten to feed­back. Of course, this comes with the caveat that the per­son you are in dia­logue with is worth lis­ten­ing to.

couple fighting communicate better

I once worked with a cou­ple with ter­ri­ble com­mu­ni­ca­tion. We tried and tried, but they stayed stuck, and even­tu­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed. She returned peri­od­i­cal­ly for what­ev­er it was we did.

I could nev­er fig­ure it out, because she didn’t absorb much of anything.

She’d let me talk for a bit, then she’d cut me off with:

  1. I know that!” or
  2. I’d already decid­ed to do that before you said that.”

Pret­ty much, “I know every­thing, and it’s so weird that things nev­er work out for me.”

My favourite exchange hap­pened dur­ing her last ses­sion, which was sev­er­al months after her sep­a­ra­tion. She’d called her ex, and it hadn’t gone well.

I called him to check in on him, and he wouldn’t do what I said! I mean, he nev­er lis­tened to me when we were mar­ried, and now we’re sep­a­rat­ed, and he still won’t lis­ten to me!”

It seemed to be beyond her to “get” the idea that her job was not to edu­cate oth­ers–it was to edu­cate her­self.

This is the basis of true dialogue.

Let’s face it. Our heads chat­ter at us inces­sant­ly. There are real­ly only three flavours of chat­ter: infor­ma­tion, praise, or blame. The lat­ter two can be sub-divid­ed into self-praise / blame and oth­er praise / blame, but real­ly, the impor­tant part to get is that what goes on in our heads is “all us, all the time.”

That said, there is a great appeal to focussing on “the other.”

Of course there is! It gets us off the hook for reg­u­lat­ing our­selves. I’m not excus­ing the bad behav­iour of oth­ers… I want to remind you that the only behav­iour you can mod­i­fy is your own.

Oth­ers are such con­ve­nient tar­gets, though! 

I remem­ber a client mak­ing the deci­sion to stop end­less­ly crit­i­ciz­ing her husband’s every breath. The next week, in she came, full of tales of his mis­be­hav­ior and her sub­se­quent rant. 

I remind­ed her of her com­mit­ment to stop criticizing.

Well, yes, I did say that, but this was so bad any­one would have jumped down his throat.”

Because… it’s her job or some­thing… I guess.


Prof­itable dia­logue can be con­duct­ed with any­one, any­where, but real­ly, your job is to find 2 or 3 peo­ple you can be “open, hon­est, and vul­ner­a­ble” with.

One of those ought to be your principal partner, assuming you are in a relationship.

Of course! Why else would you be in a relationship? 

But… you need to under­stand clear­ly that the dia­logue is not about blam­ing, cor­rect­ing, say­ing some­thing for “his / her” own good.

This is true for all great dia­logue, but espe­cial­ly for pri­ma­ry part­ners. They’re not bro­ken, and you’re not the repair shop.

Here’s a short sec­tion on Dia­logue from my book, This End­less Moment:

Aware­ness and pres­ence are the core of all dia­logue. Dia­logues are spe­cial, most­ly because so few of us ever have one. Most­ly we engage in sequen­tial or simul­ta­ne­ous monologues.

There are only two pur­pos­es for dia­logue. One is to solve a prob­lem. The oth­er is to share infor­ma­tion about the only thing I can share infor­ma­tion about—myself.

The oppo­site of dia­logue is fight­ing. The dif­fer­ence between a dia­logue and a fight is the “intent.”

There are one-sided fights and two-sided fights. A one-sided fight hap­pens when one per­son end­less­ly cor­rects and lec­tures and “per­suades,” while the oth­er per­son says, “Yes, dear.” It’s a “fight” because the recip­i­ent has no inten­tion of doing what (s)he has agreed to. You might think of it as bul­ly­ing and placating.

A two-per­son fight is always about “who is right.” Which is odd, because, as we’ve not­ed, there are only per­son­al opin­ions, wants and desires. It’s like that famous scene in the movie “Annie Hall,” split screen, Woody Allen on one side, Diane Keaton on the oth­er, each talk­ing to their shrink. Woody: “She nev­er wants sex—only 3 times a week.” Diane: “He always wants sex—3 times a week!”

Such dis­cus­sions are unsolv­able, of course, because there is no “right” num­ber of sex­u­al encoun­ters per week. There’s just what’s hap­pen­ing and how I inter­pret it. Sim­i­lar­ly, there is no “right” way to raise a child—there’s just what works. There is no “right” way to communicate—just ways that work and ways that don’t.

Let’s be clear here: a dia­logue about an issue and a fight about who is “right” about the issue is not the same thing.

Good dia­logue requires the will­ing­ness to be direct. Direct com­munication can be blunt com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It is always sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion, notice­ably devoid of sub-plots or out­side opin­ions. “Every­one knows…” is not direct. “I think…” is.

Peo­ple who teach com­mu­ni­ca­tion at The Haven often use the words “open, hon­est and vul­ner­a­ble” to describe good com­mu­ni­ca­tion or dia­logue. They inter­re­late in sev­er­al ways, not the least of which is this: I can only be as hon­est about me as my open­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty allow.

I’m amazed by how many peo­ple think that hon­esty is a bad thing. It’s some­times put as a pow­er state­ment: “I would feel pres­sured if I had to tell him every­thing.” Oth­er times, it’s a pri­va­cy issue: “I have a right to my secrets.” Or an embar­rassment issue: “Well, I couldn’t tell any­one that!” Or, tit-for-tat: “I’m not going to be hon­est unless she is.” End­less and amaz­ing are the excus­es for lying.

Dar­bel­la and I have only one “line in the sand” (a stan­dard which, if bro­ken, would mean the end of our rela­tion­ship) and that is, total hon­esty. We decid­ed, when we first start­ed dat­ing, and have reit­erated with each oth­er since, that hon­esty is not only the best pol­i­cy, it’s the only policy.

We want to remind our­selves of the point I made in the sec­tion “The Poignan­cy of the Now.” Our com­mitment is to total honesty—and I can only be total­ly hon­est about what I know today. Thus, I agree with Gand­hi, who once said some­thing like, “I promised you the truth (as I know it today), not consistency.”

I hope you begin to see how “truth” can only play out in hon­est, open, vul­ner­a­ble dia­logue. And the only “truth” I know is the truth of me, in this moment. That truth is total­ly encap­su­lat­ed in the sto­ries I tell myself, in the feel­ings I gen­er­ate in myself, and in the thoughts I dri­ve myself with. None of this “has to be.” All of this is as I cre­ate it.

Open­ness is the will­ing­ness to shine a light on me. If I am open, I am will­ing to be clear about all aspects of myself. Vul­nerability adds to this: I am even will­ing to admit to the scary, strange, weird, nasty, manip­u­la­tive parts. I am will­ing to tell you how I hurt myself. I am will­ing to risk it because this is what true dia­logue, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rela­tion­ship require.

Of course, I get to choose who I am in true dia­logue with. Many peo­ple come back from one of our Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­shops or from The Haven with the idea that they are sup­posed to be open, hon­est, and vul­ner­a­ble, say, with the gro­cery clerk. This is sim­ply not so. I might choose to be clear and hon­est with pret­ty much ev­eryone, but that won’t include shar­ing my inner the­atre with them.

I choose open, hon­est vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty with peo­ple I trust to be so with me.

Dia­logue is a tool that allows me to pay atten­tion to myself and to share what I dis­cov­er with a small and select group of friends. The real rea­son for the dia­logue is so that some­one else is wit­nessing what I am doing and think­ing and inter­pret­ing. Then, when I get off track and lose clar­i­ty with myself, my friend(s) can call me on it, typ­i­cal­ly by ask­ing me why I am mak­ing the choice I am mak­ing. And I can do the same for them.

Left to our own devices, we pret­ty much tell our­selves what we want to hear. We can get so wrapped up in the sto­ry that we miss what’s “real­ly” going on. Reg­u­lar, fo­cused dia­logue is a dis­ci­pline designed to com­mit me to being much more open about the details—the “why” in “why are you telling your­self that story?”

The mean­ing­ful­ness of what is dis­cussed shifts and changes; the mean­ing of the dia­logue itself remains con­stant. It is this: in dia­logue, I find, lis­ten to and reveal myself. Not for approval or vali­dation. Only I can do that for myself. Dia­logue is a way of learn­ing ever again that I am safe being me. I am OK being me.

In the com­pa­ny of friends, dia­logue frees us from the bur­den of being alone. There is, by agree­ment, accep­tance as opposed to “right and wrong,” manip­u­la­tion and blame. Because, of course, there is no one to blame. There is just this moment and the next, and the sto­ry I tell. And if per­chance I sad­den myself with the sto­ry, I can re­member Gand­hi, and sim­ply tell myself (and my friends) anoth­er one. Each equal­ly valid. Each equal­ly “true.”

Because the only mark of the worth of a sto­ry, you see, is the result.

Think about set­ting up a dia­logue agree­ment with no more than 3 peo­ple. The agree­ment is to meet reg­u­lar­ly, to take turns describ­ing your “stick­ing points,” and to lis­ten to your partner(s) as they pro­vide feedback.

No defend­ing, explain­ing, justifying.

Just lis­ten, and take in. Then, try clar­i­fy­ing your posi­tion from a place of gen­tle­ness and “non-know­ing.” Be curi­ous about your­self and your process, as opposed to try­ing to jus­ti­fy why you con­tin­ue to do what does not work.

Have a breath, lis­ten some more, and then, pick some­thing you can test out — some dif­fer­ent behav­iour — to see what happens.

Then, do it!

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