06/18/2009 - Articles

Dialogue: The Key to Understanding One Another

By: Andra Stanton, University of Massachusetts, LICSW



Differences are bound to arise whenever two people interact, and when not handled properly, may lead to serious disagreements. However, if individuals take the time to engage in dialogue, disagreements can be resolved.

Dialogue is a way for people to not only exchange words, but also to "think together" 1 in such a way that their relationship is strengthened, despite their differences of view.

Getting ready to engage in dialogue

Before you can engage in dialogue with someone, you need to make sure that both of you are ready to do so. Getting ready consists of the following:

1. If you're angry, calm down. Give yourself time to cool off. Walk, write, get busy.

2. Start to take deep breaths. Taking deep breaths is the fastest way to slow down your bodily reactions to upset and anger. (For more information, please see link below to the article 'Take a Deep Breath and Relax').

3. While you're calming down, try to figure out how the disagreement arose.

  • As difficult as it may sound, try to understand your own part in the conflict -- what you did or said that may have contributed to it. Most of the time, conflict arises due to misunderstandings on boh sides.
  • If you are hurt or angry, try to understand why. Look beyond the surface and figure out what is the underlying issue that is bothering you. For example, if you get angry when your spouse comes home late for dinner and the meal is ruined, the real issue is not the burned food, but rather the lack of respect and consideration that your spouse communicates with his or her actions.


4. Keep in mind that anger comes from hurt. As you work to calm yourself down, try to understand that anger comes from being hurt. Think about what sensitive area you may have hit upon in the other person. If you are angry, try to figure out what sensitive area was stirred up within you.

5. Find time to have a dialogue about what happened. If you are not able to work at sorting matters out immediately, then try your best to address the conflict as soon as possible. Try not to put it off. Ideally, less than 24 hours allows events to remain fresh in your mind as you seek to engage in dialogue.

Setting time aside to talk sends important messages to the other person. You are telling him or her that working on the problem between the two of you is important to you, and that you value his or her relationship.

Engaging in dialogue

Once you have calmed yourself down, and followed through the above steps, you can go on to have a productive dialogue. Here are suggestions:

1. Maintain eye contact. If you are in the same room as the other person, get rid of all distractions such as the radio, television and phone. Face one another and be sure to keep your eyes focused on the other person when he or she is talking. If you don't, you are signaling disinterest, whether you mean to or not.

2. Seek first to understand. During your conversation, your goal is to find out everything you can about why the other person is upset.

  • Put your preconceptions aside.
  • Put your own perspective aside.
  • As you are listening, do so fully. Don't be preparing a response to perceived criticism or accusations.
  • Try to remain neutral when listening. Avoid the urge to step in and "correct" the other person's perception. Remember, every person views things in his or her own unique way. Their perspective may be different from yours.
  • Treat the other person as a teacher. He or she is teaching you about his or her feelings and perceptions. Through such sharing of feelings and inner thoughts, people deepen their level of intimacy and trust in one another.
  • Ask questions until you are sure the other person has said everything there is to be said about the conflict, from his or her point of view. When the other person seems to have had his or her say, ask: "Is there any thing more you want to add?"


3. Take deep breaths. If you find yourself wanting to respond to what the other person is saying about you, take a deep breath. Count to 10. Let it pass. Go back to focusing on the other person's feelings. Wait until it is your turn to speak.

If you are not accustomed to sitting still and listening, you may begin to fidget and feel restless. It's important to sit quietly and give the other person your undivided attention. Part of your discomfort may stem from having to do things you may not be used to doing.

By taking deep breaths and focusing on the bigger goal - preserving your relationship - you will increase your capacity to sit with discomfort. It is simply a matter of practice and you will get better at it.

4. When it's your turn to speak, use gentle language.

  • Don't ever insult or call the other person names.
  • Never use threats.
  • Never try to "psychoanalyze" (i.e. label the other person). This makes the other person's point of view seem trivial.
  • Never refer to the other person's past history, including family experiences.
  • Watch your tone of voice. Be sure that you are not being harsh, arrogant or sarcastic. If your statements are reasonable, but your tone is off-putting, your listener will have a hard time listening to and understanding what you are trying to convey.


5. Use "I" statements. Say "I felt X when you said/did Y". Explain why you became hurt not by referring to the other person's words or actions, but by referring to your own point of view. For example, you might say "I felt hurt when you called me a failure".

6. Saying sorry helps to heal the rift. Even if you feel you hurt the other person unintentionally, admit you had something to do with the disagreement. Simply say, "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings" - you'll be surprised how meaningful those words can be to others.

7. In the future, choose your battles. Sometimes people get bogged down in arguments over petty matters. Learn to differentiate between things that matter and things that don't. Some things are worth the effort required to have a productive and meaningful dialogue, while others are not.


The most important task to be accomplished before a dialogue takes place is for one, or preferably both or all people involved, to try and understand the underlying reason for their hurt or angry feelings. Equally important, they must sincerely want to understand what went wrong for the other person.

Engaging in dialogue offers people many possibilities: it is a proven way of overcoming differences - whether they are with family, friends or co-workers. Dialogue reduces the chances of differences escalating into arguments or fights; and it allows people to deepen their bonds with one another and experience more rewarding relationships.


Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communication in Business and in Life by William Isaacs Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation by William Ury



Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together: A Pioneering Approach to Communication in Business and in Life William Isaacs, Doubleday Books, 1999


Created on: 11/13/2001
Reviewed on: 06/18/2009

No votes yet