Let me begin by saying that dialogical psychotherapy is not a psychological theory about personal intrapsychic dynamics. Neither is it a technique or skill for repairing the wounds and vulnerabilities of our human psyches. It takes as given the rich store of scientific knowledge we now have at our disposal in these areas. The word ‘dialogical’, rather, points to the reality of the self as relational. And in talking about dialogical psychotherapy I want to focus on the implications of this for the therapeutic relationship.
The idea of the self as relational and dialogical is an old philosophical principle. It was eclipsed in the modern era by the notion of the self as monological – an idea which gave primacy to the autonomous rather than the relational aspect of the self. However, in contemporary thought the older principle has been revived and its central significance has been developed anew by some twentieth century continental philosophers such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur and many others.
In the area of psychotherapy, the insights of Martin Buber, in particular, have been developed at length by Maurice Friedman, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Barbara Krasner to name but a few. Roberto Assagioli, Italian psychiatrist and founder of psychosynthesis was a friend of Buber’s. His understanding of the self was remarkably similar to Buber’s in that it stressed the interpenetration of our existence as selves, our unity in multiplicity, and the process of synthesis that brings about this reality. In our practice of Psychosynthesis in Eckhart House we have given particular focus to Buber’s sense of the relational as dialogical and its role in realising synthesis. While other defining characteristics of the self remain in place viz. the self as complex, dynamic, embodied, the self as relational and dialogical highlights the fact that the journey of self-realisation is always a journey in and of relationship with ‘other’, the other within oneself, the interpersonal other and the transpersonal other. It points to the fact that the self’s centre and core capacity to integrate and unify the multiplicity of its experience is activated in response to the ‘address’ of the concrete other. It is within this context that we talk of psychotherapy as a healing dialogue.
The Dialogical Self
First I would like to outline a few central elements in this idea of the dialogical self that are important in a psychotherapy context. Then I will talk about its implications for the therapy relationship as such. Buber’s central insight is that each person’s existence is unique and that equally we are partners-in-existence. We experience ourselves as real and truly present only when we relate to both these poles of our existence. However, to know oneself as unique one needs to be made present in one’s uniqueness by an other. For Buber, this is central. He calls it ’confirmation of otherness’. The act of confirming is at the heart of true meeting and true relating. It means that each person in order to experience her or himself as person, must be addressed in this confirming sense by another. ‘Without being confirmed in this way by another’, he claims, we cannot know ourselves to be unique’. The point of emphasis here marks the difference between knowing oneself to exist merely as an individual rather than as a person. The latter happens only in a concrete confirming relational context.
The Atrophied Personal Centre
There is a connection between this and what Buber calls the ‘Justice of the Human Order’. Not only does every person need to be confirmed in this way; every person, as a matter of natural justice, is owed it, it is a natural entitlement. And, of course, the corollary of this is that every person has the capacity to confirm the other in his or her uniqueness. The immediate implication of this for dialogical psychotherapy is that the process of self-delineation, of realising the structures of the separate self – one pole of our existence as persons – is damaged and curtailed primarily by the absence of confirmation by significant others in one’s life, in particular, in one’s early life. A person’s psychopathology, consequently, can be discovered and addressed only within the context of a concrete confirming relation. In its absence the personal unifying centre of the human being will remain atrophied and the person will be unable to engage with others as partners-in-existence. Healing, for Buber, addresses and hopefully regenerates the ‘atrophied personal centre’.
Act of Inclusion
I’d like to look a little more closely, now, at the act of confirming the other’s uniqueness in relationship. For Buber it is primarily an act of inclusion, of creatively including in one’s own being the reality of the other without losing one’s own ground or centre as a separate self. Maurice Friedman, the most prolific writer on Buber’s work, stresses that inclusion is an act of creative imagination, not an act of ’empathy’ as one might suppose. It is ‘a whole imaginative swinging into the life of the other, so that one can, to some extent, concretely imagine what the other person is thinking, willing and feeling in the concrete now’. To be inclusive in this way is to be able to risk oneself to the other without guarantee of a response. We can say it is a willingness to be open, to be present, to be willing to address the other, to be addressed by the other and to respond to the address of the other. The capacity to build relational trust in this way and to restore relational trust where it is damaged is, for Buber, the central dynamic of healing the whole person.
Substitutes for Relational Trust
The word ‘relational’ and ‘relationship’ as we commonly use it does not necessarily mean dialogical. So when we talk about relational trust here we need to keep in mind its dialogical context. We are all fairly familiar, I imagine, with the more usual substitutes for relational trust. We often meet the other by leaving our own ground, for example, we take on other people’s thoughts and feelings in place of our own; we protect our own ground, close ourselves off and hold others at arm’s length. In psychotherapy too it is easy to bypass or misconstrue the relational. We can get caught up in analysing and resolving the problem the client presents. We can rely on our techniques or skills to build and restore relationship. In all of these ways we are objectifying the other by attending to them as contents of our own consciousness. That is to say, I am immediately present to my own thoughts, analysis or feelings about the other and not to the present concrete reality of the other. Buber’s focus is always on what happens between and not on what happens intrapsychically in either pole of the relationship. Introspective reflection and resolution of issues comes later.
The ‘Really Real’
It is obvious from this cursory glance at Buber’s understanding of relation and relational trust that commitment to the real is to the concrete reality of relation. The real is what happens in the meeting between persons. Any deviation from it in the form of relating through the veil of abstract and generalised ideas or through techniques and skills is a retreat from that existential commitment. He applies this in a very specific way to psychotherapy. The concrete meeting as persons of therapist and client is primary; it is the goal of therapy. Individuation serves that goal and not vice versa. Buber, of course, is not suggesting that we discredit, much less ignore, transference – counterference issues, or other intrapsychic dynamics in the relation between therapist and client. Rather, he is saying ‘healing is through meeting’ and therapy which heals goes ‘beyond the repair work that helps the soul which is diffused and poor in structure to collect and order itself to the essential task, namely, the regeneration of the atrophied personal centre’. This can be attained ‘only in the person-to-person attitude of a partner, not by consideration and examination of an object’.
Needless to say no dialogical therapist can, nor indeed ought to, promise to deliver on this! Real meeting is not something we can guarantee or switch on at will. Perhaps it is better thought of as a context which grounds the psychotherapy relationship. Awakening to the personal centre in its unifying and integrative function is a developmental process in body, feelings, mind, soul and spirit. Nevertheless, it can be addressed and related to as such in any moment of real meeting, not as an achieved or actualised state, but as an emerging possibility. The personal centre does not awaken spontaneously, but responds gradually when it is addressed. This is obviously true for both client and therapist as individual persons. But in the therapy relationship as such the act of inclusion in which the other is confirmed in his uniqueness, is not really mutual. Buber talked of ‘limited’ and ‘normative’ mutuality in relation to this. In his famous dialogue with Carl Rogers (1957) he disagreed with Rogers’ claim that full mutuality between client and therapist is the basis of the healing dialogue. For Buber though the relationship is mutual in the sense that the therapist, if fully present in an open, trusting and inclusive meeting with the client as person, the client herself does not – and indeed cannot – include, in any real sense, the therapist. If she does then the therapy relationship as such ceases. It must also be noted that the act of inclusion in which the client’s unique otherness is confirmed may require the therapist to move in the direction of a more challenging and confrontative level of engagement. This also underlies the idea of limited mutuality in the relationship.
In a psychosynthesis context the focus of address is the self’s unifying and integrative centre or core as body, feelings, mind, soul and spirit. Because the overall movement in this is synthetic rather than analytic, there is a real need to avoid any spurious short cuts to unity and integration. The full implications of the psychodynamic and developmental stages of the self’s formation must be adhered to and integrated. In the case of individual therapy in psychosynthesis this is obviously of central significance.
In addition to this if psychosynithesis is grounded in a dialogical framework, in the sense we have been discussing, then the practice of being present to the other will be essential. Let me say a word or two here about presence. Presence is a meditative stance, a practice and not a technique. The focus is on the one who practises and not on a goal to be achieved. One practises being centred by receiving into oneself the contents of one’s consciousness in the concrete moment. In that receptive stance, one identifies with the self who experiences rather than with the contents of the experience. This is often described as a practice of remembering who I am, or, of opening to the mystery of who I am, as body, feelings, mind, soul and spirit. It is important to stress that this practice of presence could easily become a mechanical repetition of words, or empty formula. If that happens it ceases to be practice and becomes a technique or skill to produce feelings of being centred in oneself. In reality, however, practice is opening to ever more inclusive levels of listening to the stories I tell myself about who I am in the concrete NOW, to telling and retelling the story of my past which shapes my present and opens me to receive and shape what is emerging for me. As such, a meditative stance becomes a way of life, a way of being present, which includes one’s process as body, feelings, mind, soul and spirit. It is a practice of gathering dissociated faculties in a more unified whole. The seeming paradox in this is that presence to self frees one from being preoccupied with self in its many identifications by being aware or and inclusive of them. In that dynamic of freeing one can practise attending to the other, concretely imagining what the other is thinking, willing and feeling in the now, thereby being present to the other confirming the other in her uniqueness.
Healing in a psychotherapy context, as we all know, is a very gradual process and can never be guaranteed. A major part of that process is concerned with self- delineation – issues of bonding and separating which have originated in the client’s early formative experiences and have developed into neurotic blocks, interferences and obstacles in his personal life and relationships. In a dialogical context of meeting between therapist and client, the first element in addressing this level of the client’s experience is that of bonding. This means earning the trust of the client whose capacity to trust had been injured, by being there and available for the client, literally being trustworthy. It calls for openness and substantive flexibility in listening to and validating the client’s experienced meanings in the events in his life, and the stories he is telling himself about these. A meditative stance in this will facilitate the therapist in staying in the present moment, in keeping at bay cognitive analysis and reflection on the client’s experience, which draws her away from the present moment. It will allow the therapist to suspend her own presuppositions, her own worldview and meanings and prejudices, in the moment, without abdicating them. It will, in this way, facilitate the creative imagination of the therapist to enter into the world of significant meanings of the client. It will create a space within and between therapist and client which can evoke the ongoing self-disclosure of the client. If there is real meeting as this process unfolds then the client will experience being confirmed and validated in his uniqueness by the therapist in the very mode of relating between them. Failure in this results in what Buber calls “mismeeting”. As a consequence, though the level of analytic awareness may have increased for the client, the personal centre will remain atrophied in that it has not been addressed.
Moving into Dialogue
The process of confirming the other in his uniqueness is, however, but a first stage in the process of becoming partners-in-existence. In being confirmed in his unique otherness a person is enabled to become truly relational by becoming, with others, partners-in-existence. Dialogue with others, engaging the difficulties experienced in addressing and being addressed by others, of responding and being responded to by others becomes part of the ongoing dialogue between therapist and client. It is a dialogue which evokes the client’s sense of self-in-right-relationship with others as body, feelings, mind, soul and spirit. It engages the client’s sense of being real in and through being relational. This movement into dialogue with others, becoming partners-in-existence has, perhaps, for the past two hundred years or so has been dominated by a sense of self as monological. The primacy of the individual and the contractual basis of our relationship with others in society had taken firm hold on our minds and imaginations by the early twentieth century. This has led the individual, in our day, to adopt an ethos of psychological introspection in search of personal fulfilment and happiness. It has left us with a heightened sense of ourselves as individuals and an undernourished, perhaps even dormant, sense of ourselves as partners-in- existence. Buber’s dialogical approach to relationship and, in particular to relationship in psychotherapy is an antidote to this. From a psychosynthesis perspective I feel the emphasis on the dialogical is a significant factor in grounding the process of the self, as personal, as interpersonal and, even more importantly, as transpersonal.
References are taken from Maurice Friedman, The Healing Dialogue of Psychotherapy (1985) (Jason Aronson Inc. N.Y.)
Friedman, M., The Confirmation of Otherness (1983, Pilgrim Press, N.Y.)
Friedman, M., Religion and Psychology (1992, Paragon House, N.Y.)
Buber, Martin, The Knowledge of Man edited by Maurice Friedman, 1965 Allen & Unwin Ltd., London)
Krasner, B.R., and Joyce, A.J., Truth, Trust, and Relationships (1995, Brunner/Mazel, N.Y.
Josephine Newman is a team member in Eckhart House, Institute of Psychosynthesis and Transpersonal Theory. She is also a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy in UCD.