Interviewing the Elephant
By Al Turtle, July 2006
I have been seeing couples for many years. In my first session with them, while I am demonstrating a whole collection of dialogical skills and letting them experience dialogical space, I use as a topic “Interviewing the Elephant in the Living Room.” I am used to doing this, but only recently did I realize what I have stumbled into. It seems as if I am lifting huge weights off the shoulders of the people before me. I have noticed this effect on their bodies over and over. But I was puzzled why this worked so well. Now I am beginning to grasp (gasp at) an even greater appreciation of the great power of being dialogical.
Here’s the background. Recently I was invited to meet with a group of people, a committee, who seem to have gotten themselves all tangled up. They are Imago Therapists, but their “comings together” have become less and less fun and more and more tense. They are considering disbanding. To my way of thinking, my guess was that the level of safety in the group has been going down and down. My guess was that they were sharing less and less with each other and talking more and more outside of the group. My guess was that the pile of the “unshared” stuff was getting pretty deep.
As they invited me to help out, I pondered what the “heck” I could do. After some sleepless nights, I decided that I would just show up and “interview” each of them about what they thought was “going on.” I would do this interviewing in front of everyone. But this was exactly what I do when I talk with clients the first time, I thought. I interview the clients on what they each see are the “problems with getting along with your partner.” My experience over and over is that by putting “their views of the problems” into words, while keeping the points of view intact and separate, those very problems lose their fearful power. It seems that the “power of the problems” derives much strength from the silence. In my work, I break the silence.
Some time ago, in trying to share my definition of Communologue for the Imago Peace Project, I created a dichotomy between what I called Traditional and Communologue Groups. “Traditional groups,” I said, “create a sense of fragile peacefulness by developing a list of avoided – secret topics. Communologue groups create a sense of solid peacefulness by developing a reliable way of sharing all topics. Traditional groups have tension and big unpleasant surprises, while Communologue groups tend to have fun and lots of joyful excitement.”
Thus my experience is that when I interview members of a group or a couple about the problems, I am guiding them on a path from the “Traditional” to the“Communological”. I am quickly moving them toward more sharing. I am moving them away from tenseness and secrecy, into a dialogical space where they can connect with integrity. I am doing this by interviewing the Elephant in the Living Room – the topics that are not being discussed.
More and more I have realized that the role of the listener in dialogue is akin to the role of an interviewer. There is no attempt to find out “what is really going on” nor to find “facts.” There is just the dialogical task of helping people reveal, share, their separate view of the facts.
As a guide/therapist with a couple, I am the one demonstrating the dialogical skills: for example removing/avoiding MasterTalk, using PreValidation, and setting the rate of sharing to be comfortable and fun. I am giving them a start at these dialogical skills which they can take away, develop, and use at home. As a guide with a group I am both demonstrating those skills, while training other members of the group to become additional guides. Thus in a group the competency of all members, to take joint responsibility in maintaining dialogical space, rapidly increases. In the process, the Elephant in the Living Room seems to walk away.
I believe that once a group or couple “gets good with the skills of dialogue” they will tend to keep using those skills, as meetings or “comings together” become more and more fun and exciting. At some point, the skills of dialogue become self-teaching. I believe that lapses into non-dialogical, or traditional relating will become naturally annoying. And thus, I believe, that Elephant tends to leave permanently.
What I see as a challenge is that Communologue groups and dialogical skills are not “normal” in our culture. The tendency in our world to avoid topics, and the presence and use of MasterTalk, seems ubiquitous. On the other hand, I think this situation just provides a wide open career for anyone who wants it – teaching and guiding dialogue.
Join in the fun!