The Heart of Dialogue – a keynote presentation by Brenda Rawlings at the New Zealand Association of Counsellors Conference 2011

NZAC Conference Address 2011 by Brenda Rawlings

Dialogue as a construct provides an opportunity to have new and different conversations; indeed is an integral part of a shift into a new paradigm where relationality, rather than individual autonomy, takes centrestage.

For those of you who don‟t know me, I am Brenda Rawlings. Peter McMillan and I are partners in life and work. We have been engaged in learning and teaching Imago Relationship Therapy over the last 15 years. Dialogue is at the heart of Imago, which was developed by Harville Hendrix and which we now use in our counselling practice, and in couples workshops, and which we teach to counsellors in New Zealand and Australia.

I had hoped in this short address to place Dialogue in an historical context. I understand that when Harville Hendrix first coined the word Imago Dialogue as the core process for the work he was developing 30 years ago, he scoured the professional journals and found only a few references to dialogue. Today there are hundreds of references. This is, we think, because Dialogue, as opposed to Monologue, has come of age.

I believe that the movement from monological communication to dialogical conversation is both mirroring, and facilitating, the movement toward equity in relationship. Monologue is endemic in hierarchical structures, and facilitates power over, in order to assert and persuade. True dialogue creates an environment which allows for the honouring of diversity; it allows for and indeed demands curiosity and the development of empathy. It asserts the possibility of enabling two people to be present in the same space at the same time – connected, energised, engaged and empathic.

Marriage as an institution has been under increasing strain. There is an inherent drive to find a different way to be together which more closely models equality and partnership. Marriage in the form that we have known it has been seen by many as maintaining power and control, or patriarchy. However, people seem to still wish to be in long term monogamous relationships; we have an innate yearning to pair together with others in mutually fulfilling relationships. As the old structures fall away we are looking for new ways of facilitating being together. Conscious, intentional relationship with the attributes of positivity, curiosity and empathy allows a way forward. Dialogue enables this new way of loving to flourish. Dialogical forms of communication can provide a vehicle for the facilitation and and co-creation of relationships of equality, which are then inherently able to support individual growth, strong attachment bonds and the possibility for both deep healing and fun and enjoyment.

Though I am talking here about change in intimate couple relationships, Dialogue which is intentional also provides a profound possibility for change and equity not

only between partners, but also between colleagues, within families, cultures, and other social groups. In order to move towards sustainability and peace, diversity needs to be honoured, curiosity increased and defensiveness lowered. Old neural pathways need to be soothed. We need to find ways in which to replace blame with curiosity, hierarchy with equality, power and dominance with collaboration and calm, thereby maintaining loving and peaceful relationships with others, with children, and with the planet.

Let me speak for just a few moments about the Imago Dialogue process, which I hope will help illustrate what I mean when I talk about moving toward equality through Dialogue. Dialogue in Imago has three parts – mirroring, or listening with attunement; endeavouring to make sense of the other‟s perspective and experience; and empathising. Imago Dialogue offers a structure which slows down the conversation, so that instead of immediately responding to your words with my own, (much of which I have been engaged in getting together whilst you are talking, having to some extent made up your experience to fit in with my picture of you in my world), instead of all of that, I stay present to you.

The first step in the Imago Dialogue is one which counsellors are essentially specialists in, because we are trained to be present, to listen and speak in a person centred way. The first step includes mirroring and summarising the speaker‟s words. This allows the listener to cross the bridge into the other‟s world, to see what it is that the other is attempting to say without changing, interpreting, correcting or judging it. This allows the person to be: be ourselves, to be safe to express, to grow into our potential through the process of what is referred to as being mirrored into existence. As the feminist author Carol Gilligan wrote, “a voice without echo dies”. We want to be seen and heard as the person that we are, not as the other constructs us. As Krishnamurti stated: “If we think we know another person, then we have killed them in our presence.” In mirroring, we aim to hold the speaker in a powerful connecting embrace, so that they can come more and more fully into themselves. When we invite a person into dialogue, we invite them to cross the bridge and visit our world, knowing that in turn we will cross the same bridge and visit their world.

The second step of the Imago Dialogue is where we endeavour to make sense of the other‟s perspective and experience . This provides the possibility that even though I may see things differently from you, I can make space for your difference. I can make sense of your perspective and let in the validity of your unique experience. This process enables growth in one‟s capacity for differentiation, to recognise that I am psychologically and emotionally distinct from you. As I hold on to myself in the face of your difference, I grow in my capacity to be myself. I no longer need to collapse into believing that you must see it „my way‟, for my experience to be valid.

And the last segment of the dialogue is to empathise with you, to really get what it might be like for you to be having this experience emotionally, thereby touching in to your story with my humanity. When we move into empathic resonance, I experience you holding me empathically. There are a number of developmental stages of empathy, but eventually we can move into an empowering and healing place, where I experience you experiencing me having an experience. Empathy becomes the transformational elixir of relationship. When we experience emotional resonance, the neurological synapses shift, bonding occurs, attachment deepens and we can allow our own essential nature, our empathic connection and relaxed joyfulness to emerge past our defences. We feel alive and we want to be with each other.

And, in a true dialogical encounter, the listener then has the opportunity to respond, to safely show up with what may or may not be a different reality. Now we have two people, and potentially two very different realities, showing up in the same space at the same time. Allowing an „other‟ to show up in the same space as ourselves is, according to philosopher Martin Buber, the basic existential angst of all time, triggering the fear that we will be annihilated; that one of us needs to be right, and if it‟s not me, then it‟s you; triggering my fear of invisibility, and ultimately non-existence. Dialogue pushes at this angst, enabling an opportunity, slowly and subconsciously over time, to tolerate the fear of difference. When we no longer feel the need to force the other to be the same as us, diversity can then be not only tolerated, but discovered and enjoyed.

Dialogue in itself, in the way that I have described it, is an act of courage and generosity. It asks of us that we bring attunement, attention, curiosity, containment and a desire for connection to the space between us. It includes intentionality, being present to the conversation with softness, compassion and empathy. Whilst Dialogue can be viewed simplistically, it is a deceptively profound act to actually leave one‟s world behind and enter into the experience of the other, and has an acute impact on the dynamic of relationship. We can move from conflict to creative tension; from negotiation and compromise to co-creation; from negativity to curiosity and empathy; from intrusion and neglect to attuned presence; from self at the centre, to relationality at the centre.

Not only can we then move into authentic, alive, joyful relationships with intimate others, but also with colleagues, within social institutions, between cultures, in fact any time where two different realities need space to show up. We know we are in conscious dialogical community when each of us has the freedom to be our own authentic, differentiated self, to feel in full equality with every other member, and fully responsible for the community itself and for the relationships that develop within the context of that community.

Being present to others with respect, curiosity and empathy is addressed in a story that many of you may know, the Rabbi‟s Gift.

“Once upon a time an Abbot of a decaying Monastery, with only four other monks left, all in their 70‟s, asked a Rabbi who was visiting a hut in the nearby woods, what advice he might give to help resurrect their dying order. The Rabbi at first merely sympathised about the spirit going out of the people, they spoke of other deep things and expressed their sadness to each other. Then as the Abbot was leaving he asked once more for any advice that the Rabbi might give him. The Rabbi replied; “No I‟m sorry, I have no advice. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.” When the Abbot brought these words back to his fellow monks, no one knew what he might have meant, but in the months that followed, they began to wonder, could it possibly be one of us that is the Messiah. And in response they began to treat each other with deep respect, genuine interest and curiosity, compassion and empathy for each other and for themselves, as well.

It so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the beautiful forest that surrounded the monastery. Without even being conscious of it, visitors began to sense a powerful peaceful and spiritual aura. They were sensing the extraordinary respect and compassion that now filled the monastery. More and more people came to picnic, to play and to pray in the woods, and eventually the monastery began to take on more life, becoming once more a thriving order and a vibrant centre of light and spirituality in the realm.”

My hope is that we will come to a time where we each greet those whom we meet throughout the day, dialogically; consistently endeavouring to make sense of the other; showing up with our own unique voice; to see the beauty and diversity of each person and idea, so that we may move more and more into a world of equality, peace and the welcoming of diversity and rich tapestry. Dialogue requires us to let go of and replace negativity and judgment, with curiosity and empathy. As we do this we move toward an environment of peace and sustainability, a place where power and control has no place, and equality is foundational. Dialogue inherently means, we welcome each person‟s unique world, unique voice, unique story. There is a space for each of us. And making a space for each of us is the heart of Dialogue.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa