Successful Couple Dialogue
by Dick Wulf
Your relationship is extremely important. Building that relationship between the two of you needs to be very important. That firmer foundation will come when you both understand one another, accept one another, find each other a bit more fascinating, and stop trying to change the other into a copy of yourself.
I am a professional counselor and psychotherapist with over 37 years experience helping individuals, marriages, families, groups and teams. I have been married for over 37 years and have three daughters and three grandchildren.
A couple of things are important to the building of a great relationship. One is just spending fun times together. The other is understanding and appreciating one another.
Dialogue Is Very Important for Couple Success
A couple of things are important to build a good relationship. One is just spending fun times together. The other is understanding and appreciating one another through dialogue.
Dialogue is a form of communication that can help people get to know and appreciate one another. Dialogue is not for problem-solving or arguing and criticism. It is for understanding people.
Dialogue is merely asking questions of each other — out of curiosity — in order to better know and understand each other.
There is probably no finer communication skill than dialogue. Therefore, if you and your partner learn to do it, you will become more able than most to build a very warm, loving relationship. Also, dialogue is critical to understanding one another and, later, resolving conflicts.
What Is Dialogue?
DIALOGUE IS MERELY ASKING QUESTIONS OF EACH OTHER OUT OF CURIOSITY IN ORDER TO BETTER KNOW AND UNDERSTAND ONE ANOTHER.
The aim of dialogue is to get to know and better understand one another. In fact, it would be a great goal to become fascinated with all of the important people in your life — especially with their uniqueness and difference from yourself.
Dialogue usually means just asking the question, “Why?” over and over again. When you ask a person a “why” question, it usually opens up a little bit of new information about him or her. Another “why” question yields a little more fascinating information. When a “why” question seems hard to think of, then any simple, friendly, non-judgmental question motivated by curiosity is fine.
Do you see what dialogue is all about? It is learning about other people so that you can understand them and relate to them sensitively. And, when needed, be more helpful and understanding.
Dialogue Helps People Understand One Another
Dialogue is the kind of talking that leads people to understand each other. It is not used to change people. However, when people feel listened to and understood, then they are willing to listen to how others see things. This approach will often lead to change. In fact, it is much more effective than arguing or even discussion. Because dialogue is without manipulation, especially manipulation by force, people can adopt other people’s way of viewing things or doing things — and consider that it was their own choice. People don’t like to let people tell them what to think or feel.
So, dialogue helps people find out what the other person really thinks and feels. It helps you find out what your partner really thinks and feels. It helps your partner find out what you really think and feel. Understanding and accepting your partner — deeper and deeper through dialogue — knowing how he or she thinks and feels, as well as what he or she really means by what is said, creates better and better close relationships.
Dialogue Must Be Safe Communication
Dialogue should be safe conversation. Times together must be fun. They must also be safe. Whatever is said and done when you are together must not make the other person feel bad, disappointed, threatened, stupid or wrong.
A negative experience is very destructive. It breeds low self-esteem, destroys confidence, encourages performance anxiety that lowers job performance, causes distrust, results in avoidance of doing things together, and a bunch of other bad things. Don’t let your relationship be unsafe and no fun.
Since it is designed just to find out information, dialogue is very valuable in helping each of you understand and appreciate one another. Dialogue is just asking simple questions. To find out information. Not to correct. Not to change the other person. Just good-natured, open-ended questions that have no right answers.
Especially because talking in the past might have been dangerous or may not have been comfortable, dialogue must be safe conversation. Since it is designed just to find out information, it is very valuable in helping the two of you understand and appreciate one another. Dialogue is just asking simple questions. To find out information. Not to correct. Not to change the other person. Just good-natured, open-ended questions and answers that have no “right answers.”
When people share their thoughts and ideas, they take a risk. When another person accepts his or her thoughts and ideas by listening and not arguing, trust begins to build. “Accepting” what another person thinks does not mean that you agree, only that you accept that he or she has the right to think his or her own way.
Telling another person your feelings is more intimate and personal than relating thoughts and ideas. Therefore, sharing feelings is very risky. Trust has to be established — trust that the other person will not reject those feelings by saying that they are silly or unfounded or untrue. People’s feelings are the most personal part of them, and are often deeply rooted in their values and past experiences.
And, people hate to be criticized or argued with about things they say about themselves, or, for that matter, about almost anything that they say. But especially when people are telling their own feelings or their own thoughts, they do not want to be corrected or criticized. Your partner wants to express his or her memories as he or she remembers them, not as you might remember them. He or she wants to tell you his or her answers and have you not criticize those answers. For example, in answering the question, “For what store would you prefer to have a $5,000 gift certificate?”, if she mentions a store you don’t approve of, keep it to yourself. Instead, ask why she would prefer that store. Find out what she is thinking. (Hey, it isn’t going to happen anyway. People are not just wandering around giving $5,000 gift certificates!) Or, maybe you think she did not think of a store you thought she would like the gift certificate to be good for. Don’t argue. Just ask, “Would you like that store more than Whatever Store?” She may change her mind, or there may just be a reason she would prefer the store she first mentioned.
Here’s another example. In answering the related question, “What gift would you get me if you had $2,000 to spend?”, if he mentions something you would really not like, don’t react negatively. Don’t say something like, “What makes you think I would like THAT?!” Instead, say something like, “What makes you think I would like that?” (Note that I used the exact same words. The second way is not critical.) Follow this up with, “I really would not like that, but it is interesting that you thought I would like it.”
Dialogue Is Different from Discussion
There is quite a difference between dialogue and discussion. Ideally, dialogue is free of conflict and disagreement. Discussion allows for disagreement. Of course, during dialogue there is disagreement, but it is considered difference rather than disagreement. This is to keep the dialogue safe. It is a chance for partners to give honest answers and not have to worry about disagreement. Instead, it is called difference. Different ways to think about something. Different ways to perceive something. In contrast, discussion focuses on the disagreement in order to arrive at agreement.
Dialogue will occasionally expose some differences that have to be dealt with to establish agreement. But, discuss differences at another time, a considerable period after the safer dialogue. Your partner may have changed his or her mind by that time. In any case, you do not want dialogue to be dangerous. Therefore, it is not the time or place to resolve differences through discussion, which may become confrontational and full of conflict. Usually, there are days, weeks and months before solid agreement has to be achieved.
However, dialogue should get the first privilege of resolving the difference. This way a solution can be found without the risk of conflict. Since most disagreements are just saying the same thing in a different way, asking a number of “why questions” will often reveal agreement rather than what was first identified as disagreement. In other cases, all of these “why questions” will help you understand the difference and open doors to cooperative compromise or another non-conflict resolution.
Dialogue Gets People Thinking About Things
Dialogue often gets others to think a thing through a little further than they have before. Therefore, dialogue not only lets you understand a person better, it also helps others understand themselves better.
Dialogue brings up questions people have not thought about before. This helps them to grow and change. For example, when your partner says that it is not necessary to drive slower for your comfort, dialogue questions can get him or her to think this through, even though he or she would rather not. Questions like the following, asked in a dialogue sort of way (innocent, curious, not judgmental) will do far more than giving that lecture that you have repeated so many times. “Why do you drive so fast?” “Why is it important to you?” “Why is my fear not a good enough reason to slow down?” “Do you think my requests are unreasonable?” “Why?”
Dialogue like this can help you understand one another as well as get your point across in a safer way. Such talking teaches. This, in turn, should increase sensitivity to each other, reduce arguing, increase cooperation and a host of other good results. After you get used to asking each other about things, you should find that you ask each other more questions about everyday things and show more interest in one another. This is a wonderful sign and should be encouraged.
An Example of Dialogue
Dialogue is merely asking questions of each other out of curiosity in order to better know the other person. Here’s an example.
Many years ago, my wife Jean and I were teaching about 300 people at a church workshop how to dialogue. I asked Jean what she likes best about the forest. I had never talked with her about that before.
“Sitting by a stream” was her answer.
I was asking if she likes the trees, the animals, or something, and it did not seem to me that Jean answered my question. But, she answered the question as she understood it. And, I used my brain. I went with what she said, not what I expected her to say. Correcting her would have made her feel talking with me is dangerous. And, her answer was correct — just not what I was expecting. So, I asked her, “Why is sitting by a stream what you like best?”
Jean answered, “I like to listen to the water flowing.”
That was an answer I could understand. I like the sound of a stream also. However, it wasn’t important that I could relate to her answer. In fact, because I also enjoyed the sound of a stream, I was in danger of thinking she would like listening to it for the same reason I did. That would have led me to say something like, “I know what you mean.”
“I know what you mean” is the world-famous dialogue-breaker of all time. And, it is definitely the wrong thing to say — or even to think! It is wrong for two BIG reasons. First, it shuts the dialogue off because it communicates that there is nothing more to be understood. (There is always more to understand.) Second, it communicates that you are not all that interested in the other person — in listening any more.
After Jean answered that she liked to listen to the water flowing, I asked the Basic Dialogue Question of All Time — “Why?”
That is when she said something that revealed a deeper truth about her that I did not know.
Jean answered, “Listening to the water flowing over the rocks takes my mind off of the things I worry about.”
I was now at that deeper level where I could really learn what life is like for Jean. So, I did not tell her she shouldn’t worry. That would not have been of much help. I had just learned that she does worry. A lot of the time! I did not know that. Jean was starting to open up. My simple, non-judgmental dialogue questions were convincing her that it was safe to open up. Deeper trust between us was developing. If I kept asking innocent questions, questions without any hidden motive other than trying to understand her, I would be of more help to her than ever before.
While “Why?” is the basic question, “How?” and “What?” questions are great secondary questions if “Why?” doesn’t seem to apply. The key is to keep finding out interesting things about the other person.
At the point that Jean said that the sound of the river drowned out her worries, I could have gone deeper, but we were in front of a lot of people. Later, I asked her, “Why do you have all those worries going through your head.” She replied, “I don’t know. I just do.” That was a signal that our dialogue on that subject was over. She now needed time to think. It would have been a good time to go on to another item to talk about or to ask her if she has a favorite river to sit by. Sometime in the near future I would open up the dialogue again and ask, “Have you figured out yet why you have all those worries going through your head?”
Dialogue Must be Fun — and Safe!
Many of us had parents who talked to us only when giving orders or correcting us. So, we learned to give orders and criticize, but not how to just spend time in safe conversations, much less those kinds of conversations that help us understand one another. Too many of us cannot remember conversations with our parents that were safe or that were not telling us what to do or telling us what we did wrong. Our parents did not help us to think because they never asked us any questions. Our parents did not help us feel smart because they never asked our opinions on anything when we were children. Our parents did not give us a feeling that it was safe to be ourselves, because for their approval we had to be just like them.
You don’t want to be that kind of person! Instead, be the kind of person who asks, who listens, who affirms, who helps your partner, and who builds his or her self-esteem.
People hate to be criticized or argued with about things they say about themselves. When people are telling their own feelings or their own thoughts, they do not want to be corrected or criticized.
Your partner wants to express her or his memories as remembered, not as you might remember them. She or he wants to tell favorite things and have you understand why those things are favorites. She or he doesn’t want you to say anything or communicate by body language that there is anything wrong with what she or he considers her or his favorite or why it is the favorite. After all, it is HER or HIS favorite — and she or he will accept your different favorite. She or he wants to express wishes and dreams as they exist right now, while the two of you are talking. If it is different than something said previously, she or he won’t be upset if you ask if a change has occurred or if that previous wish was forgotten. But, she or he sure doesn’t want to hear criticism about dialogue contributions.
Let me repeat that times together must be safe. Whatever is said and done when you are together must not make either of you feel bad, disappointed, threatened, stupid or wrong. A negative experience is very destructive. It will shut down talking. If that happens, you might stay together, but the relationship will be strained.
Many of us had parents who talked to one another only when doing business or giving orders. So, that’s all we learned about marriage. We did not learn to just spend time talking in safe conversations, much less those kinds of conversations that help people understand one another.
Especially because talking in the past might have been dangerous or may not have been comfortable, dialogue must be safe conversation. Since it is designed just to find out information, it is very valuable in helping the two of you understand and appreciate one another. Dialogue is just asking simple questions. To find out information. Not to correct. Not to change the other person. Just good-natured, open-ended questions and answers that have no right answers.
Dialogue Helps You Analyze Problems
How can you discuss, evaluate, disagree and then come to agreement — if you first do not really know what your partner thinks, feels, and means by what he or she says?
For example, you might want to complain about the way your partner is quick to raise his or her voice to get his or her own way. But, dialogue will help you find out more before you have that discussion. Dialogue would, in this case, be asking why he or she raises the voice. He or she might say that he or she is never seriously considered until the voice is raised. You could take a week or two to observe and see if this is the case. Perhaps you will see that his or her quiet requests or arguments are dismissed, forcing the volume to be turned up. Then, the changing that needs to be done is yours.
On the other hand, he or she might say that the voice is raised to better get the point across. Then you need to tell how best to present a request or opinion to you so that you will hear it and not become defensive.
Or, think about how easy it would be for any of us to say, “I wish you wouldn’t do that!” The typical responses are to stop doing whatever it was — or to argue.
If you just stop doing something when someone says she or he doesn’t like something, without dialogue, without simple questions, then you don’t see the principle behind the request. True, you will not continue to bother your partner with that particular behavior. But, probably, you will continue a lot of other behaviors she or he considers similar. You will get many more, “I wish you would NOT do that!” statements.
However, if you asked, “Why?” in a non-threatening way, showing that you only wish to understand, you might find that there is a principle to guide your future behavior with the love of your life. Let’s say what you did was drop a book loudly on the table. Nothing was hurt and there was no obvious harm in tossing the book on the table. Out of love and respect for your partner, you might never again throw a book on a table or something hard. A couch maybe, but not a firm surface. Maybe that would be because you assumed that the complaint had to do with damaging the book.
And then, on one of your better days, you decide to ask, “Why?” when told, “I wish you would not do that!”. And you find out that the issue is the loud, abrupt, unexpected noise — that it is being startled that your partner does not like. Now, it will be more than books that you do not slam down. And, your life will be a little more peaceful. You’ll hear, “I wish you would not do that!” a whole lot less!
Asking questions can tell you much more about any problem you are facing.
Dialogue Helps Solve Problems
Asking questions before you draw your conclusions can help you do a better job of addressing problems. Asking questions allows you to be more accurate about what is going on. You can spend a whole lot less time trying to correct a situation if you are not just guessing about what the problem is.
Think about how easy it would be for any of us to say, “Don’t talk to me that way!” If your partner did not think the disrespectful thoughts you assumed, she or he will be totally confused. But, a simple question like, “Did you mean to be telling me what to do?” will help clarify the situation. You might get a convincing “No” answer. Then, you would realize that you did not interpret her or his comment correctly. You can then ask for an explanation or elaboration of what was said.
But, if she or he is lying about not telling you what to do, non-accusatory questions will require self-examination. Handled the other way, “Don’t talk to me that way!” — without questions — will only trap your partner into a defensive posture and make her or him look ridiculous, which will be destructive to self-esteem and the relationship. If, on the other hand, she or he admits to be telling you what to do, you can counter with other dialogue questions before objecting and precipitating an argument. Those questions could be, “Why would you want to tell me what to do?” “Do you think we should boss each other around?” “Why would you think that bossing me around would be the best way to get what you want?” All of these dialogue questions can help your partner to think.
Immediate correction such as, “Don’t talk to me that way!” will likely create fear or confusion and bring forth defensiveness, rather than real thought about behavior. When your partner thinks things through, there is a much better chance of her or him thinking, learning and changing.
Acceptance of One Another Is Critical
People love to be understood and accepted. When they are understood and accepted, greater trust between people is the result. And trust is essential to strong, loving relationships.
But, you can’t really accept another person until you understand him or her. Therefore, understanding what a person says is much more important than just hearing what words are said. It is only really possible to accept another person after you understand why he or she thinks or feels the way he or she does — the meaning beneath the words. You can be generally accepting, such as in, “I will accept anything.” But that is not true understanding or acceptance. A person, accepted without understanding, will not feel truly accepted, understood and safe. This is why it is necessary to explore a person’s answers.
Everyone is fascinating.
People Are Very Different from One Another
Relationships between people are at the heart of living. If each of you appreciates the other, things go so much smoother. But, people are different. They act in different ways. They talk differently, see the world differently, make their decisions differently, and even gain personal energy differently.
And, so, the one thing that can hold back love, appreciation and cooperation in your relationship is a lack of acceptance of the other’s differences. Dialogue can help you overcome the criticism and lack of closeness that differences sometimes cause. It can help each of you become fascinated with the other’s differences rather than becoming irritated. Dialogue, little-by-little, over time, can help you discover how each of you is unique and interesting. While we might be more comfortable with people who are just like us, similar people are not all that fascinating. It really is the differences in people that provide variety and excitement and surprises to our lives — as long as differences are not rejected and criticized.
Do you know, according to the personality theory of the late Carl Jung and measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that people gain personal energy in two very different ways? Most people gain energy from what is happening around them. I am one of these kinds of people. If I am at a boisterous party, I leave with lots of energy. I am going to have to lose some energy to be able to go to sleep.
But, then there is a smaller group of people, about 35% of the folks, who, like my wife Jean, gain energy from having their conscious focus on the inside. That same wild party that gives me so much energy will drain energy out of Jean.
This difference in how people gain and lose energy explains a lot of different behavior. Usually we complain about and criticize these differences. I did it too — when I was younger. I would say to Jean on the way home from a party we both enjoyed, “Why are you not cheerful? Didn’t you have a good time?” In essence, I was complaining that, in her tiredness and quietness, she was ending the evening incorrectly. Actually, it was my complaining and lack of appreciation of who she was that was ending the evening poorly.
And, also, do you know, according to the personality theory measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that people look at the world in two basically very different ways? Most people see the world through their five senses — sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. That’s the way my wife Jean is. But, some of us, myself and up to 35% of the population, look at the world through a sixth sense, called “intuition.” This difference is like two people speaking two different languages not known very well by the other.
Here’s an example of how not knowing and appreciating one another’s differences can really make things difficult.
When our two natural daughters were 4 and 5 years old, before our foster daughter joined our family for her whole lifetime, there was some hitting and crying. Jean asked me, “Did you see what just happened?” I answered, “They’re mad at each other.” There was a short pause. Then Jean looked at me and said in irritation, “No, I asked, ‘Did you see what just happened?’” Again, I answered that our two little girls were angry with each other. Jean repeated her question, and frustrated, I answered again, both of us now speaking loud and angry. Soon our argument was much worse than the argument the girls were having.
You see, Jean is one of the majority who watch life through what they see, hear, taste, touch and smell. So, when she was asking what I saw that had just happened, she was meaning, “who hit who first?” I’m an intuitive. I watch the world with a focus on what things mean. To tell you the truth, I probably did know who hit who first, but that was not the question I heard. I heard, “What is happening?” So, I reported that I saw that something had caused anger, then pushing and shoving and hitting, and then they were still mad at each other.
I guarantee that this interaction between Jean and I over 26 years ago was frustrating, aggravating, and we were not thinking the right things about each other. But, it was just that we, like most people, think that everyone is the same — or ought to be just like us. It just isn’t that way. And smart people know and accept this fact.
By the way, I suggest that you each take and study the results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a tool that can tell you a lot about your two personalities. You can do this by calling professional therapists, such as myself, in your area and asking them if they give and are very familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If they want to give you a lot of other tests, look for someone else — someone who pretty much specializes in the MBTI, as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is nicknamed.
I do not recommend taking the MBTI or any look-alike on the Internet. This is a professional tool and should be explained to you by a mental health professional.
More Hints for Good Dialogue
The important thing is to remember that everyone’s answer must be acceptable just as it was said. If your partner seems to be joking or fooling around, that probably just means he or she is nervous. Maybe he or she thinks that criticism will follow answers, so he or she will draw the fire on silly answers. Just let those answers stand. In time, your partner will see that it is safe to give honest answers that bring acceptance and appreciation. Then the goofiness will fall away.
Sit back and relax. This is dialogue — a time to learn, a time to relate — not a time to problem-solve. Enjoy it. Don’t feel the pressure to control or change your partner.
Make sure that you ask a lot of questions to clarify what is being communicated. Usually the best question is “Why?”
Dialogue will expose some differences that might have to be solved. Make a note of those you think might need some discussion and problem-solving — to do later. But, during the time of dialogue, do not bring up problems.
Don’t steal the other person’s limelight. And, please, don’t criticize the manner in which he or she says something.
Guidelines for Dialogue
For good dialogue, it is important to follow these basic ground rules:
1. You don’t need anyone’s permission to answer what is true for you. These are your answers. But, try to be careful regarding your answers. Your partner will be trying to remember what you said so that he or she can treat you better.
2. No arguing, criticizing, or objecting. People hate to be criticized about things they say. They know what they think and feel, and they consider it absurd and insensitive if others think they know these things better.
3. Listen in order to understand the other person, not to change him or her.
4. Ask lots of questions (usually “why?”) to clarify what is being communicated. Other clarifying questions can be: What? What for? How? When? How come? Where? In what way? Can you explain? Please tell me more.
5. Refrain from giving advice or breaking in with your own thoughts or feelings on the subject. (When your partner is through — can no longer answer any more questions or you can think of no more to ask — you can ask permission to share your feelings and thoughts about the subject. (But, not about how your partner said things!)
6. Let your partner be herself or himself, even if she or he gives an answer that you do not agree with or like. Instead of objecting or offering criticism, ask your partner “Why” questions. This will help you clarify what she or he is saying, what she or he thinks and feels about things, and who she or he is. Your partner will appreciate your efforts to understand her or him.
7. Avoid conflict over answers. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. There is just what your partner says. It is not so good to know about your partner without talking it over with him or her. On the other hand, you get a lot of appreciation for asking and learning about your significant other — from his or her own words.8.Solve problems only after much dialogue has produced deeper understanding. Dialogue will expose some differences that might have to be solved. Make a note of those you think might need some discussion and problem-solving — to do later. But, during the time of dialogue, do not bring up problems.