“Healing through dialogue is an eminently hermeneutical phenomenon indeed.”Gadamer, quoted in Staemmler (2009, p. 65).
The psychotherapeutic alliance is a dialogue which is action. Through this dialogue, understanding takes place. This understanding comes about through a hermeneutic process. This process requires the authentic inclusion of the self of the therapist.
Staemmler goes on to emphasize that in the process of understanding, one needs to be asked to ask authentic questions, bearing in mind the tendency for therapist (perhaps to hide his/her own shame) of not being authentically available to the client by asking pseudo-questions, which includes pre-prepared list of questions or repetitive questions like “how do you feel?” without actual curiosity. Pseudo-questions also include questions that predestine their answers. Authentic questioning requires the bringing into the open what is unexpected, with the knowledge that the client has the answer. This means that the therapist needs to be open to listening, and living with the uncertainty of the answer that he/she is given. This requires that the therapist relinquishes any control over the client’s answers and meaning-making, and this includes predicting what the client’s answer should be before even asking the question.
This relinquishing of control in dialogue leads us away from Buber’s “I-it” and towards the “I-Thou” way of relating. Incidentally, this forms the “symmetrical” aspect of the psychotherapeutic alliance as discussed earlier described by Altemeyer, and connected to Clarkson’s the person-to-person relationship (point 4) and the transpersonal relationship (point 5).
Another way of understanding the “I-It” form of understanding is “to claim to understanding the other better than she or he understands herself or himself”. Looking closely this can also be seen as an abuse of professional power “disguised as benevolence” (ibid. p. 91-92). The consequence to such behavior to the profession is the distrust caused by fear of the client from being misinterpreted and misjudged.
That which happens in an authentic I-thou dialogue is a mutual exchange. This happens in the “between”. Gadamer, in agreement with Buber: “The dialogue has transforming power. When a dialogue succeeds, something remains for us and in us, which has changed us” (ibid. p. 93). “Dialogue that succeeds”, is no ordinary dialogue, but that which is inclusive of the self and the other. Converse to the ‘I-It’ way of relating, it exists, as Carl Roger’s is noted to have explained, “without any techniques, means, aims or intentions” (Schmid, 2001). This kind of dialogue is what Buber terms the ‘I-Thou’. This is the dialogue with transforming power.
This is the transformative contact which many schools in psychotherapy strive to establish in the therapeutic hour. I use the word ‘strive’ to give meaning to the elusive nature of such a healing contact, and the powerful benefits in the event when such contact happens.
What’s behind the transforming power of dialogue ?
Buber, M. (1936). Ich und Du. Berlin: Schocken.
Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (Kindle ed.). (W. Kaufman, Trans.) Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Gadamer, H. G. (1975/1960). Truth and method . (G. Barden, & J. Cumming, Trans.) NY: Seabury.
Schmid, P. F. (2001). Comprehension: the art of not-knowing. Dialogical and ethical perspectives on empathy as dialogue in personal and person-centred relationships. Empathy, 53-71.
Staemmler, F.-M. (2009). The willingness to be uncertain: Preliminary thoughts about intepretation and understanding in Gestalt Therapy. In L. J. Hycner (Ed.), Relational approaches in Gestalt Therapy (pp. 65-110). NY: Gestalt Press.