National Family Communication Initiative



© 2003 Dick Wulf, MSW, LCSW


Dialogue Is Very Important for Family Success

Most of 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.

What Is Dialogue?

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.


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.

Dialogue 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.

Dialogue Helps People Understand One Another

Since dialogue 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.

Dialogue 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.

Dialogue 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 of family.

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 Than Discussion

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.

During 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.

Later, 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.

Dialogue 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.

However, dialogue should get the first privilege of resolving the difference. This way a solution can be found without the risk of conflict.

Since 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.

Dialogue Gets People Thinking About Things

Dialogue often 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 understand themselves.

Dialogue brings up questions that people have not thought about before. This helps them grow and change.

For 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, not judgmental):

· "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 do.

An Example of Dialogue

Dialogue is merely asking questions of each other out of curiosity in order to better know the other person. Here's an example.

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.

I 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?"

Jean answered, "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."

"I 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.

1. 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.

After 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.

Jean 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.

While "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.

When 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.

Sometime 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?"

More 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 talks.

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.

People 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.

Also, they 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.

Dialogue Helps 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?

For 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 his voice.

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.

On 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.

Asking questions can tell you much more about any problem you are facing.

Dialogue Helps Solve Problems

You will spend a lot less time correcting kids if you are not just guessing about what the problem is.

Think 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.

We 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:

· "Why 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?"

All these dialogue questions can help the child to think.

Immediate 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.

Acceptance 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.

But 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.

People Are Very Different from One Another

Relationships 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.

So the one thing that can hold back love, appreciation and cooperation in the family is a lack of acceptance of one another's differences.

Dialogue 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.

Do 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.

But 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.

This 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.

When 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.

By 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.

More 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.

Sit back 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.

Make 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?"

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.

If 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.

As 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.

How 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.

When you 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.

Guidelines for Dialogue

For good dialogue, it is important to follow these basic ground rules:

(1) You 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 better.

(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.

(7) 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.

(8) 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.