Martin Buberís Dialogic Communication
University of Colorado at Boulder
Dialogue is more than talking. It is not the straightforwardness of talking to or at, rather it is communicating with or between. It is "a relation between persons that is characterized in more or less degree by the element of inclusion" (Buber, 97). Inclusiveness is an acknowledgment of the other person, an event experienced between two persons, mutual respect for both views and a willingness to listen to the views of the other. These elements are the heart of dialogical relations. In this paper I will examine Martin Buberís theory of communication, its relevance to my life and the critiques of the theory.
At the core of Buberís theory is a distinction between dialogue and monologue. Dialogue is described as an I - thou relationship. Meaning that both persons in the conversation experience the other as a person like themselves. There is a respect for the person and a genuine interest in the others view. There are differing views but the same moral status (lecture notes). Monologue is an I - it relationship. It is an emphasis on the objectification of the other in a conversation and nonattendance to feelings or not understanding their views. Most often an objectified relationship happens when there is a routine transaction or when the other person in the conversation is being used and is instrumental for some means. In dialogue, conversation is treated as an end to itself, in monologue the it is a means to an end.
Dialogue is conscience-oriented. It is acting on principle and believing in the right thing. Monologue, however, is strategic. It is applied to achieve goals or calculate an outcome. Dialogue requires being conscience oriented. A dialogic communicator will engage in conversation to find an outcome that maintains values and ethics. A strategist will engage in conversation to propel their own objectives and pay no or little concern for the other participant or the ethical ramifications of his communicative actions.
Important to dialogic communication as well is the "narrow ridge". This is the place in which views from both parties to the conversation can be viewed. A kind of lookout tower or observation post in which both persons get as close to the others views with out actually taking them as their own in order to understand the other. It is not a place in which conversation participants meet and compromise their beliefs to appease the other. "The narrow ridge requires a balancing of concern for self and other in proportionate amounts for what is needed by the situation..." (Arnett, 173).
To avoid misunderstanding, dialogue needs to be defined by what it is not. Dialogue is not technical dialogue, chit chat, loving or liking the other, equality, weakness or compromise. Technical dialogue is a byproduct of modern society. It arises out of a need to understand objectively. It is different from real dialogue because Buber states dialogue is subjective (Arnett, 6). Chit chat is monologue disguised as dialogue, the need to communicate something for the sake of having their own thoughts and ideas heard, not to learn, not to influence, not to come to understanding with another (Arnett, 6). Dialogue does not happen just because you like or love someone. In fact, it can happen between persons who dislike each other very much as long as they can respectfully listen to understand the other's views. Equality does not equal dialogue either. Two persons with equal power can still not have the elements necessary for dialogue according to Buber. Weakness and compromise are not dialogue because acquiescing to anotherís view does not mean you examined it while keeping in mind your own.
My experience with dialogue and the narrow ridge occurred a couple of months ago. It was between myself and a friend since high school. Ever since tenth grade, when Andy and I became friends, there was an instant rapport between us. He was unlike any friend I had had. Over the next few years, we became close in many ways. He and I both went through many tumultuous relationships, but always ended up with each other. We never discussed our issues about one another, it was always about our other relations.
Last summer, Andy and I decided to move to Reno together. We both had received internships and had mutual friends in the area. Without discussing the impact of our decision, we took up an apartment together, and soon began working with one another. A few weeks passed, and Andy and I were getting along better than ever. We entertained each other with amusing stories of happenings at work, and other such oddities. Andy was a natural joker. He was witty, cynical and down-right goofy when it came to other peopleís idiosyncrasies as well as his own. He had a refreshing sense about himself and the world around him. Inevitably I saw myself really falling for the guy.
One day, after a stressful day at work, Andy and I decided to hit the casinos. I had just turned twenty-one, and the idea of becoming a part of the glitz and glamour of Renoís nightlife was intriguing. Andy was eager to show me the slot-machines, and I was willing to play. A few hours passed, and I found myself intoxicated from the drinks, the casino and the stuffy men around me. I felt the need to find Andy, for the world was quickly becoming blurred. I found Andy between two Sinatra types at the blackjack table. I stumbled over to him and found myself clinging onto his arm in order to maintain my composure. He gladly obliged to my inebriated being, and as I glanced into his eyes, I saw just how much I had been attracted to Andy. He laughed and laughed at the men around him, always winning a hand or two, but at the same time, he never forgot about his friend on his arm, and the messy state she was in.
After that night, I read Andyís chivalrous actions as a sure sign that he liked me too. Later that week, after another night of alcoholic bingeing, I expressed my feelings for Andy. Without a response, I watched myself being thrown in front of the toilet as I proceeded to vomit profusely. He held my hair back, and lovingly rubbed my spine. He put me to bed as only a good friend would do. In my hangover haze, I saw the clouds of my debaucherous evening part. All I could remember was Andyís strong hands reassuring me I was going to be okay. I woke up confident he felt the same way for me as I did for him. I mustered up all my sober strength to confront him once again with my idea.
I walked into the kitchen to find Andy at the table with his usual bowl of Cheerios and a sullen look on his face. I hardened up as I asked him how he was doing. He continued to tell me about the occurrences of last night. It turns out that I not only confessed my love for him numerous times, I asked him to marry me, and I told him I wanted to have his children. Taken aback by my own words, I somehow figured out that Andy was offended by my actions. I had ruined our chance for anything, let alone our friendship. I began to weep onto my makeup stained face, as he sat there in silence. I told him how terribly sorry I was, and that I hadnít meant for things to go this far. He shook his head and tried to sympathize with me.
Through all the tears, I still wanted to know how he felt. If he did like me at all, wouldnít he look past my drunkenness to see my true feelings? As I wondered about this, he put my every fear to rest as he told me that he not only wasnít attracted to me, but that he never had been and worst of all, he told me he was gay. I was absolutely crushed.
In retrospect I realize how appropriate this situation is to Buberís dialogical theory. This is because I treated Andy as an object. I objectified him rather than realizing he was a person and not my would be love slave. I realized that it would have been appropriate to relay my feelings in a sober state rather than during a drunken one. Our relationship was more of the I-it realm, because in my eyes he was purely an object of my desire, and not one of agreed desire.
The transference of the I-it relationship to the I-thou relationship built our basis for the achievement of dialogue. Dialogue is a momentary occurrence, and in our case it wasnít until I stood back on the narrow ridge of dialogue and saw his point of view, respected him as a person and did the right thing instead of calculating my interests.
This happened when Andy told me that the situation was hopeless and that my wants and desires would go unfulfilled because of his situation. During this conversation there was a moment of dialogue when I realized that this was a friend on the same moral ground as myself, and that he deserved to be listened to because his view mattered.
Despite the fact that Andy turned out to be unattracted to me didnít inhibit our ability to see each otherís differing views.
We listened to each others ideas and feelings concerning our circumstances and came to an understanding to where we were coming from. The realization of our differing circumstances made us more aware of each otherís situations and more conscious-oriented of what our relationship essentially was: it started out to merely be superficial similarities that tied us together. I discovered that Andy and I both acted on principle. I revealed my feelings for him, while in return, he revealed his feelings to me. We were open and honest with each other, hence, did the right thing for ourselves. I told him that I liked him, and he told me that he could not reciprocate the feelings.
On the narrow ridge it would be best to examine where we started off. I am a single female looking for companionship who is attracted to an attractive friend, and Andy is the gay male who is a good friend, who is a good listener, and who happens to be gay and not at all attracted to me. In order to walk the narrow ridge you must get as close to the other personís viewpoint without actually taking that viewpoint on. We had to climb the narrow ridge to see each otherís differentiating viewpoints. I realized that he couldnít be attracted to me, and I couldnít become a male, whom he could become attracted to, so we agreed to disagree and the dialogue strengthened our understanding.
Dialogue is that powerful, perfect moment of communication when there is a mutual understanding, a doing of what is right, and finding common ground. Superficially, the conversation that took place between Andy and myself probably did not look like more than a friend turning another down for a romantic relationship. This is unfortunate because more than realizing we are incompatible in a romantic way, happened.
Together, we walked that narrow ridge, and discovered that we indeed were not compatible for one another and built new understanding for our relationship. Because we are still good friends today, I would have to argue that the dialogue we experienced last summer strengthened our friendship.
In critiquing Buberís theory, we must examine it against the humanistic and scientific standards. Humanistic includes: understanding of people, clear in its value, aesthetic appeal, and reformation of society. Scientific includes: objectivity, prediction of future outcomes, simplicity, testability, and usefulness. I believe Buberís theory is humanistic. It is an understanding of people, because the people involved in the dialogue understand each other. The differentiation between dialogue from monologue in because in dialogue you try to understand each other by listening to the other person, and in monologue you are talking to yourself, and not to the other person.
This theory is clear in its value because of the emphasis of community; he does this by emphasizing community and exchanging dialogue despite differences in opinion. He stresses this whether the result of dialogue is a "good" outcome, or a "bad" outcome. He sees the importance of understanding as lying in the act of communicating and not the result of communicating. Dialogue is an end in itself. It is not a means to an end.
Buberís theory attempts to reform society. It does this by touting the importance of community, understanding by unconditional listening and mutual respect. I like Buberís theory because the humanistic standard of what his theory is: that is what happens between two people is subjective and cannot be measured.
His theory is not scientific because there is no objective understanding of when "dialogue" happens. Dialogue cannot be measured. His theory cannot predict future outcome. Dialogue is a momentary occurrence and by Buberís definition, cannot be planned or forced. This theory is not simple because it is too involved. It cannot be tested because it is subjective and because of its momentary nature.
Dialogic communication is a good theory because it shows that there can be agreements about disagreements. His theory about the emphasis of community gives new hope to society. The results of dialogue are respect and understanding of differing views. If more people were to open themselves up to dialogic communication there would be more respect of differing views. I believe that understanding like that would end a lot of conflict, and that would make the world a better place.