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The Tradition of Dialogue

Understanding the core of Dialogue:  “The Between”

Dialogue consists of two primary modes of communication:  The I-It and the I-Thou, and at the core of I-Thou relating the phenomena of “the between” can be experienced.

During the 1950’s, Martin Buber’s essay, “Elements of the Interhuman,” was first published in English.  In this essay, he speaks of “the between.”  Buber does not specifically define “the between,” as to do so would be to make it into the very thing that it is not—an objectified thought. Instead, Buber illustrates what he means through examples of various human interactions.  Buber differentiates two modes of living: one from the “recurrent expression one makes,” in contrast to or instead of “from the steadiness of one’s being” (Buber, 1965).  He says that “one can struggle to come to oneself—that is, to come to confidence in being” (Buber, 1965). 

Through this truth of self and through the truth of communicating this self without “seeming” with another, mutuality can be entered.  In other words, the person acting is doing so from his/her spontaneous self rather than from an imitation (or a “seeming”) of another person or a belief.  A person might “seem” a certain way to seek confirmation, rather than being confirmed through authentic being in “the between.” That is, living from the steadiness of spontaneous self is contrasted with living through an appearance from an imitation of another person or an appearance based upon a belief.  When two people are not bound by appearances, the spontaneous event’s “meaning is to be found neither in one of the two partners nor in both together, but only in their dialogue itself, in this ‘between’ which they live together” (Buber, 1965).

"The between" is an ephemeral event whose markings cannot be measured by any mechanistic yardstick, but only reflected upon after its occurrence by either or both of its partakers.  One can identify that "the between" occurred through a piecemeal reflection on the episode, requisites, and results that came forth from the wholeness, meeting, and grace, but such parsed reviews will always be "less than."  To attempt to capture what it is, is to truly miss what it is. In the presence of an element of indefinable grace, when two independent people bring all that they authentically are and can be into the moment, the "between" can occur.  However, the "between" remains unique to each partaker, and its occurrence can only be viewed as a gestalt.  It is not possible to ever say what "the between" is; to attempt to fully define "the between" would reduce it to something that it is not. 

Essential to the philosophical understanding of “the between” are the I-It and I-Thou, which are two phrases created by Martin Buber to describe relationships.  To understand these phrases to their fullest extent, one should read Buber’s seminal book, I and Thou.  Buber (1958) wrote “that the primary word I-Thou” arose “out of natural combination” and “that the primary word I-It” arouse “out of natural separation.”  Buber (1958) uses the following example of a tree to further explicate the two different calibers of relationship:

But whenever the sentence “I see the tree” is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man—I—and the tree—Thou—, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. (1958)

One of the foci of therapy and healing is on the capacity to move back and forth between I-It and I-Thou relating, of which the later has become a somewhat esoteric and lost art.  Entering into the I-Thou, characterized by a connectedness without a subject-object barrier, is one of the most powerful ways to renew/recreate love in relationships.  When two people meet through the I-Thou, they are renewing “the between.”

A number of years back, I met a professor of mine, Dr. Maurice Friedman, at a local restaurant for lunch.  I asked him whether he thought “the between” was only entered through an I-Thou relationship or if it could also occur in an I-It relationship.  What arose from our conversation is that “the between” always exists between people, even when they are relating as I-It, but it only manifests in an interhuman dialogue when both parties are relating to one another as I-Thou.  When one is unaware of “the between” he or she is relating by way of: the I-It.

Martin Buber (1958) wrote that: "The I of the primary word I-It, that is, the I faced by no Thou, but surrounded by a multitude of “contents,” has no present, only the past.  Put in another way, in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content.  He has nothing but objects.  But objects subsist in time that has been." Buber (1958) noted that “the object is not duration, but cessation, suspension, a breaking off and cutting clear and hardening, absence of relation and of present being."

In 21st century United States, we live in world that can easily be characterized as primarily devoted to the pursuit of objects.  We are raised in the milieu of this object orientation and are not schooled in the art or the science of holistic communication and authentic relating.  Dialogic Healing is an approach that can both educate and over time help clients apprehend and experience renewal of “the between” and the riches of “I-Thou” relating.

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