Dialogue in Roommate Relationships
University of Colorado at Boulder
One of the most difficult situations that many young adults may have to face while growing up is the issue of tension between roommates. While it may seem fairly insignificant to people who have not experienced this dilemma, it is an issue that can tear best friends apart. This problem in communication has been prevalent between two of my roommates throughout the course of this semester. It is an issue that can be extremely difficult to deal with. Martin Buberís theory of Dialogue as an "I-Thou" relationship can serve as a great tool in analyzing and understanding the problems that can arise in roommate relationships. This theory can provide an effective way for the roommates to take a step back from the negative patterns of interaction that may exist and find exactly what is necessary to successfully communicate, and in turn, resolve the tension that exists between the roommates.
Explanation of Buberís Theory of Dialogue
In 1923, Martin Buber introduced his theory of dialogue as an "I-Thou" relationship. Buber defines dialogue as a communication experience with another person that goes beyond explicit communication. It is not a complete unity with another person. Rather, it is an experience of difference between the two people in the interaction. However, this experience doesnít simply occur at some random time in a conversation. It is a momentary experience, in which both participants must be truly open with one another. As Buber said, "it is too little to be ready, one must also be really there" (Buber, 1955). This can represent the idea that both participants in the interaction must truly be open with one another and must set preconceptions and pre-existing tensions aside.
One of the major aspects of Buberís theory of dialogue is his Realms of Communication. He distinguishes between 3 different realms that communication can fall into. First is the realm of Genuine Dialogue. This is what Buber is talking about when he mentions the "I-Thou" relationship as the ideal form of dialogue. It is communication "where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relationship between himself and them" (Buber, 1955). Next are the two types of monologue, or as Buber puts it, the "I-It" relationship. Technical Dialogue is characterized by the presence of information exchange. A good example of this is a teacher giving a lecture to students, or the president giving a speech to the people of the United States. The second form of monologue is Monologue Disguised as Dialogue. This is when there is an interaction between two people but the opportunity for genuine dialogue to occur is never taken. Examples of this include debate, casual small talk between friends, or two lovers sweet-talking with each other.
Another key point in Buberís theory of dialogue is his concept of Basic Movements. A basic movement is "an essential actionÖround which an essential attitude is built up" (Buber, 1955). In genuine dialogue, turning toward the other person involved in the interaction is a characteristic basic movement. However, in monologue the other is objectified, reduced to oneís own experience and oneís own goals. Buber refers to this concept as Reflexion or focus on the self.
Buberís last major point in his theory of dialogue is his emphasis on the presence of difference in dialogue. He argues that dialogue does not mean a complete unity with the other person involved. Instead, it can be seen as an experience of difference. Buber stated that "He who is living the life of monologue is never aware of the other as something that is absolutely not himself and at the same time something with which he nevertheless communicates" (Buber, 1955). This concept of difference in genuine dialogue is central to Buberís theory.
Application of Buberís Theory to Problems in Roommate Relationships
Buberís theory of dialogue is a highly useful perspective to analyze problems in roommate relationships. I will use his theory to analyze the communication problems of two of my current roommates. His theory is effective in analyzing this particular dilemma largely because of his view of the ideal form of dialogue. Buber viewed the ideal form of dialogue as an interaction "between two persons who profoundly disagree with each other and yet struggle to make each other present even as they stand their own ground" (Czubaroff, 2000). Consequently, his perspective can provide a communication ideal for roommates with tension between one another to strive for.
Two of my roommates, Alex and Greg, are having problems in their communicative relationship right now. They used to be best friends, but throughout the course of this semester they have gradually drifted apart. It has come to the point where the only interaction that takes place between them is characterized by anger and distrust. In one recent instance, Alex yelled at Greg accusing him of only spending time with his girlfriend and never hanging out at our house anymore. In turn, Greg responded by telling Alex that he was stupid and just complains all the time. An interaction of this nature has become typical between them, two young adults who used to be best friends. Clearly, there is a strong tension that exists between them. However, this tension does not need to continue to escalate. If they could take a step back and analyze their poor communication patterns using Buberís theory of dialogue, this could create an opportunity for them to take a step back and have a truly open conversation about what their problems are with one another.
Using Buberís theory of dialogue to frame this communication problem, it is clear what their problem is. When they are communicating by means of these angry and unproductive methods, they are simply engaging in Monologue Disguised as Dialogue. While it may seem to them that they are having a truly open discussion, they need to take a step back and realize that they are both seeking to put the other person down in one way or another before the conversation even begins. This clearly will not lead to any type of solution for their communication problem. In order to eliminate this building tension between them, they need to make an effort to have an intimate conversation in which both of them can express what their problems are. This will allow for them to achieve the experience of genuine dialogue. In turn, they could come to realize that they each have their own interests and need to accommodate in order to meet one anotherís goals.
Furthermore, Buberís theory can also be used to show the problems they are having with the mannerr in which they are approaching their conflict communicatively. The ideal communication in a conflict situation is what Buber refers to as Narrow Ridge communication. This form is ideal because it involves both people contributing to the communication in a dialogue. "The narrow ridge isÖa communication style that genuinely takes into account both self and otherÖone must be open to the otherís viewpoint and willing to alter oneís position based upon appropriate and just cause, if necessary" (Arnett, quoted by R. T. Craig, lecture, Fall 2008). This is exactly the type of communication that my roommates need to strive for. However, they currently seem to fall into Polarized Communication. This is where the participants take a "my side vs. your side" approach. Clearly, this form of monologue does not provide any opportunity for conflict resolution or genuine dialogue. This is yet another aspect of Buberís theory that could help my roommates in working through their conflict.
Critique of Buberís Theory of Dialogue
Buberís theory of dialogue is very effective in analyzing and solving communication problems between people in many different settings. As displayed above, his theory can help in working through problems in roommate relationships. This theory can also be used to help with communication problems in other settings, such as in the workplace, in families, on sports teams, in a band, and in many other situations as well. It provides a great way for people to look deeper into their communication patterns and find the exact reason why they are having problems in their interactions. Consequently, it then shows people what the ideal form of communication is that they should strive for in order to solve their communication problems.
However, although Buberís theory of dialogue is extremely useful in analyzing and solving problems in communication, there is one area where it falls short. While it explains what genuine dialogue is and is not, it fails to explain the specific ways in which the participants in an interaction can achieve this experience of genuine dialogue. That is where Carl Rogersí theory of dialogue as a "therapeutic relationship" (Rogers, 1957) can be extremely useful. Rogers argues that there are 3 essential characteristics of a therapeutic relationship. First, there must be congruence (Rogers, 1957). This means that there must be openness and transparency in the conversation (Rogers, 1957). The participants in the interaction must truly be open with one another while actively engaging in the interaction. Secondly, both participants in the interaction must maintain what Rogers calls unconditional positive regard towards one another. This is when the participants are both accepting of one another and realize the value of the other as a separate person (Rogers, 1957). Third is Rogersí concept of emphatic understanding. This is when each of the participants in the interaction makes the effort to feel and see the otherís private world through their eyes (Rogers, 1957). By using these aspects of Rogersí theory of therapeutic relationship in addition to Buberís theory of dialogue, anyone who is having problems communicating with another person should have all of the necessary tools to work through their problems and find an effective way to communicate with the other person.
Buberís theory of dialogue as an "I-Thou" relationship provides an extremely useful way for people to analyze problems in their communication patterns. It can help in resolving conflict between roommates, as well as in many other situations. It provides a set of guidelines that enables the people involved in the conflict to take a step back from their patterns of negative interaction that may exist. It allows for the participants to have a goal to strive for in order to successfully communicate, and in turn, resolve the tension that exists them.
Buber, M. (1955). Dialogue. In Between Man and Man (R. G. Smith, Trans.; pp. 1-39). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95-103.
Czubaroff, J. (2000). Dialogical Rhetoric: An Application of Martin Buber's Philosophy of Dialogue. Quarterly Journal of Speech. 86(2), 168-189.