Martin Buber - Dialogue
University of Colorado at Boulder
How do we know when communication has served to strengthen relationships between people and expand individual viewpoints? When does communication reach beyond individual goals to promote and develop a sense of community? We can attempt to answer questions like these by exploring Martin Buberís theory of Dialogue.
I. Explanation of theory
According to Martin Buber, an essential building block of community is the concept of dialogue. People often think of dialogue as merely script, or an exchange of words. Martin Buber has presented dialogue as being much more than the exchange of messages and talk that takes place in human interaction. He describes genuine dialogue as "Öno matter whether spoken or silentÖwhere 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 relation between himself and them" (Arnett, p.6, 1986).
Dialogue is unique because it evolves through a process and particular quality of communication whereby parties achieve a "connection." This connection between participants allows for each party to potentially change the other, or be changed by the other (lecture notes). A relationship that has the ability to produce dialogue is referred to as an I-thou relationship. This means that one will relate to and experience another person as another person. It requires having regard for both self and other. The opposite type of relationship is referred to as the I-it relationship. Parties relate to and experience each other as objects or means to achieving goals in an I-it relationship. This relation contains only regard for self. Buber does not suggest that we are to avoid this type of relationship, he merely claims that dialogue cannot occur in the I-it relation.
Dialogue takes place between conscience-oriented thinkers as opposed to strategists. The conscience-oriented thinker will think in terms of a "good" outcome that maintains values and ethics, whereas a strategist will think in terms of achieving individual goals without concern for ethical practices (Arnett, 1986). Persons who are engaged in dialogue will participate in what is called narrow ridge communication. The narrow ridge refers to a common ground between parties. It is a point for participants to meet and share their views. The common ground in narrow ridge communication is a place where participants are open to and can see the others viewpoint, it is not a place where participants meet and compromise their beliefs to suit each other. The narrow ridge is viewed as "a guide for the development of community which emphasizes the need to search for genuine alternatives to extreme communicative positions" (Arnett, p. 43, 1986). The last characteristic of true dialogue involves meaning. Dialogue allows participants to create new meaning together and come to a mutual understanding. In dialogue, meaning is actually discovered between persons rather than owned by each individual. This concept encourages one to recognize that there is meaning beyond what is inside of him/her (Arnett, 1986).
The occurrence of dialogue may be misunderstood, so it is important to note that dialogue, in Martin Buberís terms, is not the same thing as technical dialogue, conversation/chit chat, loving/liking the other, equality, or weakness and compromise (Arnett, 1986). Technical dialogue maintains the goal of achieving an objective understanding. Meaning developed in dialogue is highly subjective. Conversation or chit-chat is not dialogue when it is not about the need "to communicate something, nor to learn something, nor to influence someone" (p.77, 1986). Dialogue does not occur simply because participants love or like each other. As long as there is a sense of respect and openness, dialogue can occur between people who dislike each other very much. "True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other (though that is required, too), but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another" (Kaufmann, p. 94, 1970). Also, relationships that are unequal in power are still capable of achieving dialogue. At the same time, a relationship that is equal in terms of power does not always produce a relationship of dialogue. Lastly, weakness and compromise do not play any role in dialogue. As I stated earlier, dialogue is not sacrificing your beliefs just to get along with or suit another person. Dialogue is something that happens on its own, it is not a skill that some people master together and others do not. As much as participants may desire to have dialogue it "cannot be planned, pronounced, or willed; it will just happen" (lecture notes).
II. Explanation of case
My best friendís boyfriend, Bobby, and I had class together last year (my best friendís name is Jen). We always made plans to study together before the tests. One of these study sessions turned out to be more than we both had bargained for. I know what youíre thinking, and no, we did not cross any boundaries or do anything "wrong" behind Jenís back! Rather, we became enmeshed in a long conversation about their relationship, which has been rocky at times. Bobby and I, at the time, had known each other a little over a year and he respected my friendship with Jen. He did occasionally talk to me about things within the relationship that he had a problem with and I did my best to offer insight.
Now, back to the particular study night. Bobby began expressing concerns about some of Jenís behaviors and the overall quality of their relationship. He mentioned more than once that she did not make him feel important. He claimed that her friends were more important to her than he was and that she rarely ever wanted to plan fun things for the both of them to do. Bobby expressed his contemplation about ending the relationship. He felt like the time and energy that he was putting into the relationship was useless and that they were just too different. I was very honest with Bobby in my responses to him. I felt like I knew him pretty well, and I obviously knew Jen very well. I offered a spectatorís view of what was going on. I validated Bobbyís feelings and allowed him to speak freely. I then proceeded to give my input to the situation. In more words, I told Bobby that he always blames the problems in the relationship on their "differences," and uses that excuse to pull away. I suggested that he take the time to evaluate his feelings instead of being so quick to point the finger at Jen, or the differences between them. I told him that there was a strong possibility that he created some of the problems in his mind in order to avoid getting too close. We talked and listened to each other for quite a while. We didnít get much studying done, but I think we both ended up feeling more connected than we had ever been.
III. Application of theory to case
The conversation between Bobby and I can be considered to have reached dialogue. The reason that I said, "reached dialogue," is because dialogue is a momentary occurrence; it is does not define an entire interaction. The fact that we listened to each other, and were honest and open with one another was an underlying theme that began to build a basis for achieving dialogue. Bobby not only related to me as Jenís best friend, but also related to me as his own friend that cared about and respected his relationship with Jen. I also related to him as a friend, as well as someone who added joy to Jenís life. We were experiencing an I-thou relationship. In order to make this claim, it is also important to note that Bobby was not looking to me to talk to Jen and "make things better." At the same time, I was in no way manipulating the situation to show bias towards Jen or to affect their relationship in order to suit my needs. These points are merely to show that we were not using each other or the particular discussion as a way to fulfill individual desires.
We were conscious of one anotherís feelings and acknowledged the fact that a clear perception would be difficult due to the fact that we each experience different types of relationships with Jen. Bobby would say something like, "I know sheís your best friend, Iím not putting her down or criticizing her, but these are the feelings that I am experiencing." I would say something like, "Youíre right, she is my best friend and I would do anything for her. But, the two of you are in a different kind of love relationship, and if youíre not happy, something needs to change." Comments like these were obviously at the beginning of the conversation. We were beginning to connect and open up to each otherís thoughts more and more because we knew that each one of us had the other in mind. Now, I want to be sure and not make this sound like genuine dialogue was easy for us to achieve; it took work and patience. Bobby felt that Jen was not contributing to making him feel valued. He felt that a lot of their problems merely stemmed from their differences. I, on the other hand, saw the situation a little differently. I knew how much Jen cared for Bobby and I was not sold on the idea that these two people were just too different to make it work. I felt that Bobby needed to identify with and evaluate his own feelings before jumping to the conclusion that he and Jen were not made for each other.
Our different takes on the situation required that we both climb up to the narrow ridge of communication in order to see both sides. Although we were open and honest, and respected each other, it was not a guarantee that we would both be willing to climb to the top in order to see what the other side had to offer. Given our different roles, I reached the ridge before Bobby did. As an observer, and as someone that was concerned for the well-being of both of them, it was not difficult for me to stand on the narrow ridge and see both sides. I truly believed that Bobby really needed to step back and think about his own actions, as well as his own fears. At the same time, I saw where Bobby was coming from and was open to the fact that he was hurting and that Jen is not perfect.
Bobby, on the other hand, had a much more difficult climb in order to reach the narrow ridge. Initially, when I started suggesting that some of the things he was doing/thinking might be part of the problem, he looked a little uncomfortable. Slowly, he started to hear me and open up to me, and we were finally able to make a connection. He knew that I was not implying that he was wrong and I knew that he was considering my input. He was not convinced that I was completely right, but he was willing to explore my thoughts. I was not convinced that Jen was the main reason for his emotional pain, but I was now willing to add more room for error.
The conversation was more than just talking back and forth with different claims. It was as if we were a team working together to solve a mystery. We had our own hunches and clues about the case, but by adding the otherís hunches and clues into our evidence we created a wider understanding and openness to why things were the way they were.
When looking at this situation through the lenses of dialogue one sees that communication can strengthen relationships and promote a more peaceful and empowering way of "arguing." If one were to view this situation without the lenses of dialogue s/he would probably not think that it was much more than a friend giving another friend advice. This is limiting because so much more than that happened. The more we achieve dialogue within personal relationships, possibly, the more we will experience dialogue within public relationships. If people were able to obtain a "more peaceful and empowering way of arguing," it would mean a stronger community in all realms, private and public. Dialogue empowers people because it augments their view of the world and encourages incorporating differences instead of excluding them.
IV. Critique of theory
Buberís Dialogue theory is a predominately humanistic theory (Griffin, 1997). The concept of dialogue encourages a new understanding of people that is largely subjective. Meaning is created by the participants engaged in interaction, which may leave an outsider with a blurred view but it allows for focus on "real" experience and interaction. Dialogue helps us to understand how a community is developed, repaired, and maintained, which is closely related to Careyís ritual model of communication. Dialogue helps us to understand that people relate to each other in one of two ways: I-thou, the means to dialogue, or I-it, the means to monologue or self-centered communication.
This theory is clear in its value for a strong community. A sense of support, acceptance, and appreciation of differences allows for a stronger sense of togetherness. Obviously, in order to reach that sense of community, people must place high value on other peopleís viewpoints. Walking the narrow ridge, so to speak, removes the blinders from an individuals eyes so that he/she may be able to look, if only for a moment, at the world through a different set of lenses. Buberís theory also has aesthetic appeal. His description of dialogue reads more like a journey, or a path that one follows to reach a certain destination.
This theory clearly attempts a reform of society. Its main function serves as awareness. Dialogue encourages an avoidance of polarized communication, something that tears a community apart rather than builds it up. Polarized communication is a key factor in retarding the development of community, much more so than factors like power inequity. Since dialogue is not a technique and cannot be created merely by displaying the necessary qualities, it serves as more of a tool for awareness. Many times awareness is half the battle. This theory is important in that it promotes togetherness among human societies through respect and open-mindedness. One of the goals of this theory is to cease maximizing oneís own opinion while minimizing anotherís opinion. Dialogue is communication that expands individual viewpoints and develops a sense of "working" together in order to reach a new and wider understanding.
On the other hand, Buberís Dialogue theory may not sit so well with those who hold a scientific perspective (Griffin, 1997). Overall, the explanation of data is clear. The theory does explain the purpose of maintaining dialogue (creating community), but it is not objective in that only the participants "really" know if they have achieved dialogue. An observer has no clear idea of whether or not participants actually established a "connection." Buberís theory is not able to predict future outcomes or events. Knowing how, when, and where dialogue is created is very uncertain. Outcomes are only known and experienced by participants, which makes the theory very unclear as to how we can really know when dialogue will or has occurred, unless some phenomenal social change takes place as evidence of dialogue.
This theory also lacks simplicity, which is a minus according to the scientific perspective. If one is searching for a simple answer for how people create community, s/he will not find it here. Dialogue is complex and involves many factors. Even if all of the qualities that promote dialogue are present, it is still not guaranteed to happen. Dialogue is difficult to achieve because "once one has learnt, like modern man, to become greatly preoccupied with oneís own feelings, even despair over their unreality will not easily open oneís eyes; after all, such despair is also a feeling" (Kaufmann, p. 94, 1970).
On Buberís behalf, creating a simple theory for a complex problem that involves complex subjects (people) is not always possible. Obviously, dialogue cannot be tested. There are way too many overlapping possibilities for when dialogue may or may not occur. Again, we cannot always be sure that what appears to be dialogue is necessarily truthful. Although the theory is interesting and strives to make a change in society, it is not particularly useful. It is useful in a sense that people will be more aware of what it takes to create community or an atmosphere of support, but no one can just use it to do these things. Remember, dialogue cannot be planned or willed; it will just happen.
Personally, I like this theory because it promotes unity amongst people. Dialogue shows us that there can be disagreements about certain issues and still have a true community. I donít think that we have much of that today. Disagreements tend to separate rather than integrate. Dialogue may not be useful in that we are not able to create it, but the theory is useful in providing awareness of what it takes to build the groundwork for possible dialogue. Overall, dialogue will happen with or without the theory and only those that believe in valuing others will appreciate it.
Arnett, R. C. (1986). Communication and community. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Griffin, E. A. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed). The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Kaufmann, W. (1970). I and thou. New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons.