Dialogic Communication Theory

by Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv

The word "dialogic" has two related root words: dialogue and logic. Numerous public intellectuals have written on dialogic communication theory, but Martin Buber's writings on the subject have become sufficiently ingrained in discussions of the concept that many explanations by others use Buber's terminology. Buber's best-known book, "I and Thou," expresses his theory of dialogic communication, the essence of which is that a truly humanistic relationship requires that both parties come to the relationship without preconditions, fully accepting of the other.

Monologic Communication

In "I and Thou," Buber notes that a lot of what we consider communication is not about people "an und fur sich" -- in and of itself -- but about functions. For Buber, these relationships are between an "I" and an "it." They are "I-it" relationships. These can be good when they are functional -- a doctor, for instance, diagnoses a patient as an "it," because scientific objectivity is desirable in that context. However, Buber notes, this way of looking at the world can become habitual, and the "I-it" relationship structure can suffuse all our relationships.

The I-Thou Relationship

In the "I-thou" relationship, Buber notes, we make ourselves fully available to the other person. We are open to her, willing to share ourselves completely with her, and truly want to understand her world view. Buber notes that when monologic communication takes the place of dialogic communication, we become incapable of experiencing others and ultimately become alienated from our own experience. With dialogic communication, we achieve real dialogue with others and experience them in what later followers of Buber's ideas have called "the now," or "the here and now." This is, to use Jean Paul Sartre's terminology, an existential relationship; it is not predefined, nor can it be constructed. It simply occurs when one is open to the experience.

The Existential I-Thou Relationship

Buber is firm in his conviction about the impossibility of trying to achieve an existential I-thou relationship through communication strategies or other rational or rationalist attempts. Buber, who was deeply religious, believed that the experience is there for us when we accept it, often in the form of a religious experience. For Buber, God, in fact, is the ultimate "thou." When we give up trying to prove God's existence -- a rationalist attempt that reduces God to an object -- we can then accept the reality of God. Likewise, when we cease trying to construct our relationships with others and instead simply accept the other person in the here and now, without definition or limitation, we will have a truly dialogic experience, a shared experience between "I" and "thou." Such an experience, according to a Buber follower, has five essential characteristics: It is mutually open, nonmanipulative, confirming and non evaluative, and it recognizes the uniqueness of the other. The result and the sixth characteristic of the experience is that the two parties reach "a common fruitfulness" unique to them.

The Limitations of the Theory

Some public intellectuals have criticized Buber's theories for their relative vagueness. If you can't work to achieve dialogic communication, how generally useful can the theory possibly be? Public relations firms, unfortunately in the view of some, have taken to the theory enthusiastically and now use it to construct a synthetic dialogic communication between the corporation and its customers. T. Dean Thomlison, in his University of Memphis course notes on the theory, cites AT&T;'s famous ad tag "Reach out and Touch Someone" as an example of this -- a synthetic approximation of a real experience.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.

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