The Pathless Path

Wayne C. Allen – a simple Zen guy – writes about living and relating elegantly

The Use of Dialogue

Synopsis: Dialogue is a tool for self-exploration. It’s not a way to get others to behave, but rather a way to self-explore.


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

This series has been and contin­ues to be individual-focussed, so talk­ing about “dialogue” could be confus­ing.

If so, let’s clear it up!

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.

the fight

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 it’s 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. Of course, 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 rant. I reminded her of her commit­ment the previ­ous week.

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

Because, her job, I guess.


Profitable dialogue can be conducted with anyone, anywhere, but really, your job is to find 2 or 3 people you can be, in Haven-speak, “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? Given what I’ve writ­ten above, though, 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 is the essence 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 really 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 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 on one side, Diane 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 discus­sion 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 learn commu­ni­ca­tion at 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 at 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 privacy.” 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.

Dar 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.

That being said, we want to remind ourselves of the point made in the section “The Poignancy of the Now.” (pg. 59) 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 myself. 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 requires.

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 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 don’t even do that with my parents. 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. The 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 paddling 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.” The only mark of the worth of a story, you see, is in the result.

This week, 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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