2003 Dick Wulf, MSW,
Is Very Important for Family Success
us have high hopes for our family. We want everyone to get along. We want everyone
to like one another and enjoy being together. Dialogue is the best way to get
to know and appreciate one another.
There is probably no finer communication
skill than dialogue. Therefore, if you and your family learn to do it, you will
become more able than most to build warm, loving relationships.
MERELY ASKING QUESTIONS
OUT OF CURIOSITY
IN ORDER TO BETTER
The aim of dialogue
is to get to know and better understand one another. In fact, it would be a great
goal to become fascinated with the most important people in your life especially
with their uniqueness and difference from yourself.
usually means just asking the questions "Why?" and "What do you mean?" over and
over again. When you ask a person a "why" question, it usually opens up a bit
of new information about him or her. Another "why" question yields a little more.
When a "why" question seems hard to think of, then any simple, friendly, non-judgmental
question motivated by curiosity is fine.
Such dialogue helps
people find out what the other person really thinks and feels. It helps you find
out what your spouse and children really think and feel. It helps your spouse
and children find out what you really think and feel. Understanding and accepting
the other persons deeper and deeper through dialogue knowing how they think
and feel, as well as what they really mean by what they say, creates better and
better close relationships.
Helps People Understand One Another
is designed merely to find out information, it is very valuable in helping family
members understand and appreciate one another. Dialogue is just asking simple
questions. To obtain information, not to correct. Not to change the other person.
Just good-natured, open-ended questions that have no right answers.
should increase sensitivity to one another, reduce arguing, increase cooperation
and a host of other good results.
After you get used to asking
each other about things, using dialogue, you should find that members of the family
ask each other more questions about everyday things and show more interest in
one another. This is a wonderful sign and should be encouraged.
Must Be Safe Communication
Times together must be
fun. They must also be safe. Whatever is said and done when you dialogue must
not make people feel bad, disappointed, threatened, stupid or wrong. Dialogue
must be safe conversation.
A negative experience in the family
is very destructive. It breeds low self-esteem, destroys confidence, encourages
performance anxiety that lowers school and college grades, causes distrust, results
in avoidance of family events once the kids are grown and out of the house, and
a bunch of other bad things. Don't let your family be an unsafe and no-fun kind
Especially because talking in the past might have
been dangerous or may not have been comfortable, dialogue must be safe conversation.
When people share their thoughts and ideas, they take a risk.
When the other person accepts their thoughts and ideas by listening and not arguing,
trust begins to build. "Accepting" what another person thinks does not mean that
you agree, but only that you accept that he or she has the right to think his
or her own way.
Revealing feelings is more intimate and personal
than relating thoughts and ideas. Therefore, sharing feelings is very risky. Trust
has to be established trust that the other person will not reject those feelings
by saying that they are silly or unfounded or untrue. People's feelings are the
most personal part of them and are often deeply rooted in their values and past
experiences. It is best never to doubt that a person feels the way he or she says.
Dialogue Is Different
There is quite a difference between
dialogue and discussion. Ideally, dialogue is free of conflict and disagreement.
Discussion, on the other hand, allows for disagreement.
dialogue some differing views may arise, but they are merely to be considered
different rather than a source of disagreement. This keeps the dialogue safe.
Dialogue is a chance for a child and a parent to give honest
answers and not have to worry about disagreement and conflict. So, disagreement
is called difference and conflict is avoided. Different ways to think about something
and different ways to perceive something are found fascinating rather than aggravating
during dialogue. This is to keep it safe to find out about each other.
disagreements can be discussed, hopefully without conflict because you'll have
gained more understanding of why and how a person thinks and feels the way he
does. Ideally, discussion focuses on the disagreement in order to arrive at compromise
or agreement, especially through creative problem solving.
will occasionally expose some differences that have to be dealt with to establish
agreement. But, discuss differences at another time, a considerable period after
the safer dialogue. Your child may have changed his or her mind by that time.
In any case, you do not want dialogue to be dangerous. Therefore,
it is not the time or place to resolve differences through discussion, which may
become confrontational and feel dangerous. Usually, there are days, weeks and
months before solid agreement has to be achieved.
dialogue should get the first privilege of resolving the difference. This way
a solution can be found without the risk of conflict.
most disagreements are just saying the same thing in a different way, asking a
number of "why questions" will often reveal agreement rather than what was first
identified as disagreement. In other cases, all of these "why questions" will
help you understand the difference and open doors to cooperative compromise or
some non-conflict resolution.
Gets People Thinking About Things
gets others to think something through a little more than they have before. Therefore,
dialogue not only lets you understand a person better, but it also helps others
Dialogue brings up questions that people
have not thought about before. This helps them grow and change.
example, when a teenager says it is not important to clean his room more than
once a month, dialogue questions can get him to think this through, even though
he would rather not. In place of the lecture you have repeated so many times,
ask questions like the following in a dialogue sort of way (innocent, curious,
· "Do you think we might need those dirty
dishes in your room?"
· "What is your theory about what happens with the
germs that grow on those dirty dishes in your room?"
· "Why do you think
we have less illness than in poorer countries?"
· "What will you do when
you want to wear something that is dirty and crumpled on your floor?"
"Are you going to pay for laundry soap and wear and tear on the washing machine
to wash just one item at a time for the privilege of not picking up your room
on a regular basis?"
Dialogue like this can get
your point across in a safer way. Such talking teaches. It requires the other
person to think.
Also, when people feel listened to and understood,
then they are more willing to listen to how others see things. This approach will
often lead to change. In fact, it is much more effective than arguing or even
discussion. Because dialogue is done without manipulation, people can adopt another
person's way of viewing things or doing things and consider that it was their
own choice. People don't like to let people tell them what to think or feel or
Dialogue is merely asking questions
of each other out of curiosity in order to better know the other person. Here's
Many years ago, my wife, Jean, and I were teaching
about 150 couples at a church marriage workshop how to dialogue. I asked Jean
what she likes best about the forest. I had never talked with her about that before.
"Sitting by a stream" was her answer.
was asking if she liked the trees, the animals, or something else in the forest,
so it seemed to me that Jean had not answered my question. But she answered it
as she understood it. So I went with what she said, not what I expected her to
say. Correcting her would have made her feel that talking with me is dangerous.
And, her answer was correct just not what I was expecting. So I asked her, "Why
is sitting by a stream what you like best?"
"I like to listen to the water flowing."
That was an answer
I could understand. I, too, like the sound of a stream. However, it wasn't important
that I could relate to her answer. In fact, because I also enjoyed the sound of
a stream, I was in danger of thinking she liked a stream for the same reason I
did. That would have led me to say something like, "I know what you mean."
know what you mean" is the great dialogue-breaker. And it is definitely the wrong
thing to say or even to think!
It is wrong for two big reasons.
It shuts off the dialogue because it communicates that there is nothing more to
be understood. (There is always more to understand.)
2. It communicates
that you are not much interested in listening to the other person anymore.
Jean answered that she liked to listen to the water flowing, I asked the Basic
Dialogue Question of All Time "Why?"
That is when she said
something revealing a deeper truth about her that I had not known.
answered, "Listening to the water flowing over the rocks takes my mind off the
things I worry about."
I was now at that deeper level where
I could really learn what life is like for Jean. I did not tell her she shouldn't
worry. That would not have been of much help. I had just learned that she does
worry. A lot of the time! I had not known that.
Jean was starting
to open up. My simple, nonjudgmental dialogue questions were convincing her that
it was safe to open up. Deeper trust between us was developing. If I kept asking
innocent questions, questions without any hidden motive other than trying to understand
her, I would be of more help to her than ever before.
"Why?" and "What do you mean?" are the basic questions, "How?" and "What?" are
great secondary questions if "Why?" doesn't seem to apply. The key is to keep
finding out interesting things about the other person.
Jean said that the sound of the stream drowned out her worries, I could have gone
deeper, but we were in front of a lot of people at the workshop. Later, I asked
her, "Why do you have all those worries going through your head?" She replied,
"I don't know. I just do."
This signaled that our dialogue
on that subject was over. She now needed time to think. It was time to go on to
another topic or to ask her if she has a favorite river to sit by.
in the near future I would return to this dialogue and ask, "Have you figured
out why you have all those worries going through your head?"
on Why Dialogue Must Be Safe
Many of us had
parents who talked to us only when giving orders or correcting us. So, we learned
to give orders and criticize but not how to carry on safe conversations. We never
had the privilege of dialogue with our parents. We got only limited value from
our conversations with them. And we did not have conversations that helped us
understand them. So, now we do not know how to initiate such dialogues or helpful
Our parents did not help us to think because they never
asked us any questions. Our parents did not help us feel smart because they never
asked our opinions on anything when we were children. Our parents did not give
us a feeling that it was safe to be ourselves, because for their approval we had
to be just like them.
You don't want to be that kind of a
parent! Instead, dialogue will help you be a parent who asks, who listens, who
affirms, who helps kids know how to think, and who builds self-esteem.
who are sharing their own feelings or their own thoughts do not want to be corrected
or criticized. People want to express their memories as they remember them, not
as you might remember them. They want to tell their favorite things and have you
understand why those things are their favorites. They don't want you to communicate
by body language or words that there is something wrong with what they consider
their favorite. After all, it is their favorite.
want to express their wishes and dreams as they exist right now. If something
is different from what they said previously, they won't be upset if you ask if
a change has occurred or if they forgot that other wish they had expressed sometime
in the past. But they sure don't want to hear criticism about their dialogue contributions.
You Analyze Problems
How can you discuss, evaluate,
disagree and then come to agreement on something if you first do not really know
what another person thinks, feels and means by what he or she says?
example, you might want to correct your 10-year-old child over his tendency to
raise his voice to get his own way. But dialogue will help you find out more before
you have that discussion. Dialogue would, in this case, be asking why he raises
He might say that he is never seriously considered
until he does so. You could take a week or two to observe if this is true. Perhaps
you will find that his quiet requests or arguments are dismissed, forcing him
to turn up the volume. Then the changing that needs to be done is yours.
the other hand, he might say that he raises his voice to help get his point across.
Then you know that you need to teach him the proper way to present his argument.
Or he might say that he doesn't like to be told no. Then,
a future discussion can focus on how to handle disappointment.
questions can tell you much more about any problem you are facing.
Helps Solve Problems
You will spend a lot less
time correcting kids if you are not just guessing about what the problem is.
about how easy it would be for any of us to say to a strident, demanding daughter,
"Don't talk to us that way!" If she had not thought the disrespectful thoughts
we assumed, she would be totally confused. But a simple question like "Did you
mean to be telling us what to do?" will help clarify the situation.
might get from her a convincing no. Then we would realize that we had not interpreted
her comment correctly. We can proceed to ask her to explain what she was saying.
But if she is lying when she says no, non-accusatory questions
will require her to look at her own behavior. Simply saying "Don't talk to us
that way!" will only trap her into defending herself and looking ridiculous, which
is destructive to her self-esteem.
If she admits to be telling
us what to do, we can counter with further dialogue questions before going on
to correction or discussion. Those questions could be:
would you want to tell us what to do?"
· "Do you think parents should let
their kids boss them around?"
· "Why would you think that bossing us around
would be the best way to get what you want?"
these dialogue questions can help the child to think.
correction such as "Don't talk to me that way!" will likely create fear or confusion
and bring forth defensiveness, rather than real thought about behavior. When our
kids think things through, there is a much better chance of them thinking, learning
and changing rather than just reacting to us.
of One Another Is Critical
People love to be
understood and accepted. When they feel that way, the result is greater trust
between them. And trust is essential to strong, loving relationships.
you can't really accept another person until you understand him or her. Therefore,
understanding what a person says is much more important than just hearing the
words that are spoken.
Really accepting other people is possible
only after you understand why they think or feel the way they do the meaning
beneath their words.
You can be generally accepting, such
as in "I will accept anything." But that is not true understanding or acceptance.
A person who has been accepted without understanding will not feel truly accepted,
understood and safe. This explains why it is necessary to explore a person's answers.
Very Different from One Another
between people are at the heart of living. If everyone in a family appreciates
one another, things go so much smoother. But people are different. They act in
different ways. They talk differently, see the world differently, make their decisions
differently and even gain personal energy differently.
the one thing that can hold back love, appreciation and cooperation in the family
is a lack of acceptance of one another's differences.
can help your family overcome the criticism and lack of closeness that differences
sometimes cause. It can help all of you become fascinated with one another's differences
rather than becoming irritated. Over time, everyone can discover that everyone
else is unique and interesting.
While we might be more comfortable
with people who are just like us, similar people are not all that fascinating.
The differences in people provide variety, excitement and surprises in our lives
as long as those differences are not rejected and criticized.
you know that, according to the personality theory of the late Carl Jung and measured
by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, people gain personal energy in two very different
ways? Most people gain energy from what is happening around them. I am one of
these kinds of people. If I am at a boisterous party, I leave with lots of energy.
I am going to have to lose some energy to be able to go to sleep.
there is a smaller group of people, about 35 percent of the population, who, like
my wife, Jean, gain energy from having their conscious focus on the inside. That
same wild party that gives me so much energy will drain energy out of Jean.
difference in how people gain and lose energy explains a lot of different behavior.
Usually we complain about and criticize these differences. I did it too when
I was younger. I would say to Jean on the way home from a party we both enjoyed,
"Why are you not cheerful? Didn't you have a good time?" In essence, I was complaining
that, in her tiredness and quietness, she was ending the evening incorrectly.
Actually, it was my complaining and lack of appreciation of who she was that was
ending the evening poorly.
Also, do you know that according
to the personality theory measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, people
look at the world in two basically very different ways? Most people see the world
through their five senses sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. That's the way
my wife Jean is. But, some of us, myself and up to 35 percent of the population,
look at the world through a sixth sense called "intuition." This difference is
like two people speaking two different languages not known very well by the other.
Here's an example of how not knowing and appreciating one
another's differences can really make things difficult.
our two natural daughters were 4 and 5 years old (before our foster daughter joined
our family for her lifetime), there was some hitting and crying. Jean asked me,
"Did you see what just happened?" I answered, "They're mad at each other." There
was a short pause. Then Jean looked at me and said in irritation, "No, I asked,
Did you see what just happened?'" Again, I answered that our two little girls
were angry with each other. Jean repeated her question, and, frustrated, I answered
again, both of us now speaking loud and angry. Soon our argument was much worse
than the argument the girls were having.
You see, Jean is
one of the majority who watch life through what they see, hear, taste, touch and
smell. So, when she was asking what I saw that had just happened, she meant, "Who
hit whom first?" I'm an intuitive. I watch the world with a focus on what things
mean. To tell you the truth, I probably did know who hit whom first, but that
was not the question I heard. I heard, "What is happening?" So, I reported that
something had caused anger, then pushing and shoving and hitting, and then they
were still mad at each other.
I guarantee that this interaction
between Jean and I over 26 years ago was frustrating and aggravating. We were
not thinking the right things about each other. But it was just that we, like
most people, thought that everyone was the same or should be just like us. It
just isn't that way. And smart people know and accept this fact.
the way, I suggest that you and each member of your family take and study the
results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a tool that can tell you a lot about
the various personalities in your family. You can do this by calling professional
therapists such as myself in your area and asking them if they give and are very
familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If they want to give you a lot
of other tests, look for someone else someone who specializes in the MBTI, as
the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is nicknamed.
I do not recommend
taking the MBTI or any look-alike on the Internet. This is a professional tool
and should be explained to your family by a mental health professional familiar
with the relevance for family interaction.
Hints for Good Dialogue
The important thing
is to remember that everyone's answer must be acceptable just as it was given.
If a person seems to be joking or fooling around, that probably just means he
or she is nervous. Maybe he or she thinks that criticism will follow, so he or
she will draw the fire on silly answers. Just let those answers stand. In time,
that person will see it is safe to give honest answers that bring acceptance and
appreciation. Then the goofiness will fall away.
and relax. This is dialogue a time to learn, a time to relate not a time to
solve problems. Enjoy it. Don't feel pressured to control or change people.
sure that the family asks a lot of questions to clarify what is being communicated.
Usually the best questions are "Why?" and "What do you mean?"
will expose some differences that might have to be solved. Make a note of those
you think might need some discussion and problem-solving to do later. But during
the time of dialogue, do not bring up problems.
There Is Discomfort in Dialogue
What if kids
seem to be uninterested?
Just remember that children start
out as infants, totally centered on their own needs. So it is no tremendous surprise
that along the way from total self-centeredness to other-centeredness, kids must
be told to spend time focusing on other people, even if they protest. This must
be a patient teaching process.
Protecting kids from feeling
uncomfortable and not expecting them to be able to think of others is a big mistake
that will hinder them all their lives. So, if your children don't want to answer
dialogue questions, don't take that as a sign not to ask them. Instead, it is
a definite sign that dialogue is necessary.
However, our experience
is that kids like dialogue even more than their parents.
parents, learn often to say things like: "Part of growing up is to learn how to
be interested in other people. It's a basic survival skill." "The thing that is
so interesting about Joe is
" And then fill in what you find interesting or useful
about the family member who is telling things about himself.
to Handle Misbehavior in Dialogue
What do you
do with kids who are in competition with one another, put each other down and
make fun of others' answers?
This will go away quickly if
dealt with correctly. First, you must tell your kids that making fun of people's
answers is against the rules. Explain that everybody's answers must be respected.
It will help to state that the family exists to help everyone
enjoy life and be all that he or she can be. This is a family purpose and should
be repeated often throughout the life of a family. It can be stated in different
words, but it must address helping one another to achieve some important purpose.
Make clear that making fun of people or disrespecting their answers is not what
"family" is all about.
The other thing you want to do is use
dialogue to deal with the problem behavior. Ask the ridiculing family member why
he or she just ridiculed. Do it immediately. If there is a deeper problem, that
will be exposed for solving.
Suppose someone in your family
says, "I really don't like roller coasters." If another family member ridicules,
you will want to intervene and discourage such comments. Such comments make the
family an unsafe place. Insist that the person who made the judgmental comment
learn that it is important to accept people as they are, and then get that person
to ask the roller coaster hater why he or she does not like roller coasters. Then,
after a few "why" questions, show the family how to accept that person's dislike
of roller coasters by knowing the "why."
What if unacceptable
behavior continues? This just means that a natural, logical, teaching consequence
needs to be applied. But what is the thing that needs to be taught? To be interested
in others? Yes. Yet the underlying problem is the need to be a contributing member
of the family who listens to others and helps them.
think through a misbehavior, you'll find that there is usually a more basic problem.
Sometimes that helps you define a consequence. In the case of a child continuing
to disrespect others in the family, it seems logical to me that the child should
lose some of the privileges of being in a family. These privileges include eating
with the family, getting special things to eat (like desserts) and going to fun
places. Simply tell the stubborn offender that when he or she decides to be an
acceptable family member and respect other family members, then these privileges
will be restored. This may seem strict, but there is nothing more important than
family members respecting one another and working together rather than being selfish.
What do you do if someone in the family seems unable or hesitant
to give answers? Just let that person say he does not want to answer that particular
item. Eventually, after he hears others giving answers and having a good time,
he will see that the interaction is safe and will begin contributing. Underneath,
safety is most likely the issue. So it is very important that those giving answers
are not criticized in any way.
For good dialogue, it is important to
follow these basic ground rules:
don't need anyone's permission to answer what is true for you. These are your
answers. But, try to be careful regarding your answers. Other family members will
be trying to remember what you said so that they can better understand you and
treat you better.
(2) No arguing, criticizing, or objecting. People hate
to be criticized about things they say. They know what they think and feel, and
they consider it absurd and insensitive if others think they know these things
(3) Listen in order to understand the other person, not to change
him or her.
(4) Ask lots of questions (usually "why?" and "what do you
mean?") to clarify what is being communicated. Other clarifying questions can
be: What? What for? How? When? How come? Where? In what way? Can you explain?
Please tell me more.
(5) Refrain from giving advice or breaking in with
your own thoughts or feelings on the subject. When the other person is through
can no longer answer any more questions or you can think of no more you can
ask permission to share your feelings and thoughts about the subject. (But, not
about how the other person said things!)
(6) Let people be themselves,
even if they give an answer that you do not agree with or like. Instead of objecting
or offering criticism, ask the other persons "Why" questions. This will help you
clarify what they are saying, what they think and feel about things, and who they
are. Other people will appreciate your efforts to understand them.
Avoid conflict over answers. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers. There is
just what a person says. It is not very appreciated if you know about a person
without talking it over with him or her. On the other hand, you get a lot of appreciation
for asking and learning about another person from his or her own words.
Solve problems only after much dialogue has produced deeper understanding. Dialogue
will expose some differences that might have to be solved. Make a note of those
you think might need some discussion and problem-solving to do later. But, during
the time of dialogue, do not bring up problems.