Successful Family Dialogue
SUCCESSFUL FAMILY DIALOGUE
© 2003, Dick Wulf, MSW, Colorado, USA
There’s not much that is more important than family. I’m sure you agree.
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. We want all family members to be proud they are a part of our family.
These Great Family Conversations Game and Dialogue Grids can help your family be a safe place where people are understood and allowed to be themselves. When people show interest in one another and work to understand one another a bit better, then there is more cooperation and appreciation.
Do you want your children to get along and work together and care for one another deeply all of their lives? This does not happen automatically. It can be helped along by using these Great Family Conversations Grids.
Dialogue is Very Important for Family Success
The Great Family Conversations Grids are designed to help you build good relationships between everyone in your family. A couple of things are important to build good relationships among family members. One is just spending fun times together. The other is understanding and appreciating one another through dialogue. The Great Family Conversations Grids add fun to the process of getting to know and appreciate one another better.
These game grids use DIALOGUE, a form of communication that can help
people get to know and appreciate one another. Dialogue is not for problem-solving or arguing and criticism. It is for understanding people.
Dialogue is merely asking questions of everyone in the family – out of curiosity – in order to better know and understand each other.
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. Dialogue is critical to understanding one another and, later, resolving conflicts.
What is Dialogue?
DIALOGUE IS MERELY
ASKING QUESTIONS OF EACH OTHER
OUT OF CURIOSITY
IN ORDER TO BETTER KNOW AND UNDERSTAND
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 question, “Why?” over and over again. When you ask a person a “why” question, it usually opens up a little bit of new information about him or her. Another “why” question yields a little more fascinating information. When a “why” question seems hard to think of, then any simple, friendly, non-judgmental question motivated by curiosity is fine.
Do you see what dialogue is all about? It is learning about other people so that you can understand them and relate to them sensitively. And, when needed, be more helpful and understanding.
Dialogue Helps People Understand One Another
Dialogue is the kind of talking that leads people to understand each other. It is not used to change people. However, when people feel listened to and understood, then they are 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 without manipulation, especially manipulation by force, people can adopt other people’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.
So, 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 Must Be Safe Communication
Dialogue should be safe conversation. Times together must be fun. They must also be safe. Whatever is said and done when your family is together must not make people feel bad, disappointed, threatened, stupid or wrong.
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.
Since it is designed just to find out information, dialogue is very valuable in helping family members understand and appreciate one another. Dialogue is just asking simple questions. To find out information. Not to correct. Not to change the other person. Just good-natured, open-ended questions that have no right answers.
Especially because talking in the past might have been dangerous or may not have been comfortable, dialogue must be safe conversation. Since it is designed just to find out information, it is very valuable in helping your family understand and appreciate one another. Dialogue is just asking simple questions. To find out information. Not to correct. Not to change the other person. Just good-natured, open-ended questions and answers that have no “right answers”.
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, only that you accept that he or she has the right to think his or her own way.
Telling another person your 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.
Dialogue is Different than Discussion
There is quite a difference between dialogue and discussion. Ideally, dialogue is free of conflict and disagreement. Discussion allows for disagreement. Of course, during dialogue there is disagreement, but it is considered difference rather than disagreement. This is to keep the dialogue safe. It is a chance for a child and a parent to give honest answers and not have to worry about disagreement. Instead, it is called difference. Different ways to think about something. Different ways to perceive something. In contrast, discussion focuses on the disagreement in order to arrive at agreement.
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 full of conflict. 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 another non-conflict resolution.
Dialogue Gets People Thinking About Things
Dialogue often gets others to think a thing through a little further than they have before. Therefore, dialogue not only lets you understand a person better, it also helps others understand themselves better.
Dialogue brings up questions people have not thought about before. This helps them to grow and change. For example, when a teenager says that 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. Questions like the following, asked in a dialogue sort of way (innocent, curious, not judgmental) will do far more than giving that lecture that you have repeated so many times. “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 exists 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 help people understand one another as well as get your point across in a safer way. Such talking teaches.
That’s what the Great Family Conversations Grids are all about. They can help you know one another much better. This, in turn, 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 the grids, 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.
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 300 people at a church 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 likes the trees, the animals, or something, and it did not seem to me that Jean answered my question. But, she answered the question as she understood it. And, I used my brain. I went with what she said, not what I expected her to say. Correcting her would have made her feel 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 like the sound of a stream also. 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 would like listening to it 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 world-famous dialogue-breaker of all time. And, it is definitely the wrong thing to say – or even to think! It is wrong for two BIG reasons. First, it shuts the dialogue off because it communicates that there is nothing more to be understood. (There is always more to understand.) Second, it communicates that you are not all that interested in the other person – in listening any more.
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 that revealed a deeper truth about her that I did not know.
Jean answered, “Listening to the water flowing over the rocks takes my mind off of the things I worry about.”
I was now at that deeper level where I could really learn what life is like for Jean. So, 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 did not know that. Jean was starting to open up. My simple, non-judgmental 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?” is the basic question, “How?” and “What?” questions are great secondary questions if “Why?” doesn’t seem to apply. The key is to keep finding out interesting things about the other person.
At the point that Jean said that the sound of the river drowned out her worries, I could have gone deeper, but we were in front of a lot of people. Later, I asked her, “Why do you have all those worries going through your head.” She replied, “I don’t know. I just do.” That was a signal that our dialogue on that subject was over. She now needed time to think. It would have been a good time to go on to another item to talk about or to ask her if she has a favorite river to sit by. Sometime in the near future I would open up the dialogue again and ask, “Have you figured out yet why you have all those worries going through your head?”
Dialogue Must be Fun – and 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 just spend time in safe conversations, much less those kinds of conversations that help us understand one another. Too many of us cannot remember conversations with our parents that were safe or that were not telling us what to do or telling us what we did wrong. 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, these Great Family Conversations Grids will help you be the kind of parent who asks, who listens, who affirms, who helps your kids know how to think, and who builds self-esteem in your kids.
People hate to be criticized or argued with about things they say about themselves. When people are telling their own feelings or their own thoughts, they do not want to be corrected or criticized.
In these Great Family Conversations Grids, 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 say anything or communicate by body language that there is anything wrong with what they consider their favorite or why it is their favorite. After all, it is THEIR favorite – and others can have a different favorite. They want to express their wishes and dreams as they exist right now, while they are talking. If it is different than something they said previously, they won’t be upset if you ask if a change has occurred or if they forgot that other wish they 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 – 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 ten-year-old child about the way he is quick 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 raises his voice. You could take a week or two to observe and see if this is the case. Perhaps you will see 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 better get his point across. Then you know that you need to teach him the proper way to present his argument. He might say that he doesn’t like to be told, “No.” Then, a future discussion can be focused on how to handle disappointment.
Asking questions can tell you much more about any problem you are facing.
Dialogue Helps Solve Problems
Asking questions before you draw your conclusions can help you do a better job of addressing problems. Asking questions allows you to be more accurate about what is going on. You can spend a whole 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, “Don’t talk to us that way!” If our child did not think the disrespectful thoughts we assumed, she will 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 a convincing “No” answer. Then, we would realize that we did not interpret her comment correctly. We can then ask her to explain what she was saying.
But, if she is lying about not telling us what to do, non-accusatory questions will require her to look at her own behavior. Handled the other way, “Don’t talk to us that way!” – without questions – will only trap her into defending herself and looking ridiculous, which is destructive to her self-esteem.
If, on the other hand, she admits to be telling us what to do, the mother or father can counter with other 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 of 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 are understood and accepted, greater trust between people is the result. 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 what words are said. It is only really possible to accept another person 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, accepted without understanding, will not feel truly accepted, understood and safe. This is why it is necessary to explore a person’s answers.
This is true with most of the items on the Great Family Conversations Game and Dialogue Grids. Ask a few “why” questions and seek deeper understanding. Show interest in one another. Everyone is different. Everyone is fascinating. The Great Family Conversations Grids will help your family members understand 600 different things about one another.
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.
And, 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. These communication grids can help your family overcome the criticism and lack of closeness that differences sometimes cause. They can help all of you to become fascinated with one another’s differences rather than becoming irritated. Responding to the items in the grids, little-by-little, over time, can help everyone 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. It really is the differences in people that provide variety and excitement and surprises to our lives – as long as differences are not rejected and criticized.
Do you know, according to the personality theory of the late Carl Jung and measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that 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, then there is a smaller group of people, about 35% of the folks, 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.
And, also, do you know, according to the personality theory measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that 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% 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 whole 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 was meaning, “who hit who 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 who first, but that was not the question I heard. I heard, “What is happening?” So, I reported that I saw 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, aggravating, and we were not thinking the right things about each other. But, it was just that we, like most people, think that everyone is the same – or ought to be just like us. It just isn’t that way. And smart people know and accept this fact.
That is why the Great Family Conversations Grids are such a wise investment on your part. Using them can help the members of your family accept and enjoy one another’s differences.
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 pretty much 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 you and your family by a mental health professional.
More Hints for Good Dialogue
The important thing is to remember that everyone’s answer must be acceptable just as it was said. 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 answers, so he or she will draw the fire on silly answers. Just let those answers stand. In time, that person will see that 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 problem-solve. Enjoy it. Don’t feel the pressure to control or change people
Make sure that the family asks a lot of questions to clarify what is being communicated. Usually the best question is “Why?”
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.
Don’t steal another person’s limelight. And, please, don’t criticize the manner in which somebody says something.
If There is Discomfort in Dialogue
What if kids seem to be disinterested? Just remember that kids 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, parents must insist that their kids 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 of their lives. So, it is NOT a sign to not do these grids if your children don’t want to. Instead, that is a definite sign that the grids are absolutely necessary.
However, our experience is that kids like using these Family Game and Dialogue Grids more than their parents.
As parents, learn to often say things like: “Part of growing up is to learn how to be interested in other people. It’s a basic survival skill.” “The reason that is interesting about Joe is that it . . .” 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 and put each other down and make fun of answers? This will go away quickly if dealt with correctly. First, you must tell them 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 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.
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 find that there is usually a larger picture. 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 for that child to lose some of the privileges of being in a family. These privileges include eating with the family, getting special things to eat (like desserts), going to fun places, among many others. 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 not much 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 they do not want to answer that particular item. Eventually, after they hear others giving answers and having a good time, they 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?”) 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 so good to 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.
Copyright 2015 Dick Wulf, Colorado, USA