The Flow of Dialogue

Three Steps to Effective Conversation

Oren Jay Sofer
The Flow of Dialogue

A good friend of mine, Amanda, called me to ask for some advice about a tricky conversation. She’d recently spent some time with a friend. After a week of camping and a rushed departure, Amanda’s four-year-old son had a meltdown in the car on their way to the airport. The friend intervened (without permission) and later emailed Amanda some unsolicited parenting advice.

I offered Amanda some empathy for how frustrated she might be feeling and asked if she longed for more respect for her choices as a parent. Then we took things apart and strategized how best to approach the conversation. There were several layers: their friendship, the other woman’s genuine desire to contribute, Amanda’s need to receive support in a way and at a time that works for her. We identified each of the different topics, clarified her needs, the requests she could make, and finally discussed some ways to open the conversation to start off on the right foot.

The three steps to effective conversation—lead with presence, come from curiosity and care, and focus on what matters—form the foundation for how we show up, the way we engage, and what we discuss. It’s also important to be able to zoom out and have a broader view of the conversation as a whole. Where do we start? How do we shift from one topic to another or from my perspective to yours?

The Steps of the Dance

Dialogue is a lot like dancing. It takes time to learn the basics, but when we’re conversing smoothly with someone else, it can be magical. Old friends and new lovers can talk for hours, moving effortlessly through the steps of that ancient dance. We speak, we listen, we dwell together in contemplation or wonder, in celebration or mourning.

Just as the in- and out-breath anchor our awareness in meditation, just as feelings and needs ground our attention in conversation, three basic “positions” choreograph our dance of dialogue.

In any given moment of a conversation, we can speak, listen, or rest in presence. We express: we speak from the heart, sharing observations, feelings, needs, or requests openly and honestly, with as little blame as possible. We receive: we listen from the heart, with curiosity and care, hearing the human feelings and needs beneath another person’s words. We rest: we bring presence to the whole process, pausing to settle and integrate as needed.

These are the basic moves of the dance. All communication comes back to these three options: express honestly, receive empathically, or return to presence.

It can be healing to feel that rhythm of give-and-take and work through a challenge. We find a flow as we shift attention back and forth, hearing one another and allowing things to settle. In sensing the rhythm of that dance, something in our nervous system learns how to participate in the process of creating understanding with another human being.

Framing a Conversation

Beginnings are delicate. How we start a relationship or a conversation can have a significant effect on its trajectory. (Starting a date with “You’re late” will probably influence how the night unfolds.) Yet so many factors feed into any one moment that it can be hard to know where to start.

The behaviors of complex, dynamic systems are highly sensitive to what are known as initial conditions, the value of certain variables at the beginning of a process. Human beings are complex, dynamic systems; the pre- and perinatal periods of a child’s life can have dramatic impact on their long-term psychological and physiological health. A conversation is also a complex, dynamic system. It’s a living, breathing process. We can use a tool called framing to set the initial conditions for a successful exchange.

Framing gives someone a general indication of the territory we’d like to discuss in a neutral or positive way. Like putting up the scaffolding for a house, it provides structure and outlines areas to be filled in later. Framing can be particularly helpful when the issues are loaded, and specific observations are likely to embroil us in the heat of a challenge. It also can provide an opportunity to gauge another person’s willingness to converse, align us with one another, or introduce a metalevel discussion concerning how we’re going to talk about things.

The first and most essential aspect of setting initial conditions is agreeing to have the conversation. If we are too focused on the issues, we can forget to negotiate this most basic aspect of relating. Is this the right time to talk? Is it a good place? Here are two examples of introducing a topic with and without framing.

Without framing: “When I heard you say ‘stop being so self- centered’ I felt so hurt. I really wanted you to know how much it would mean to me if you came to the event. Can you understand how I might have felt?”

With framing: “I wanted to talk about the conversation we had yesterday to see if we could understand where we each were coming from a little better. Would you be up for that?”

Instead of quoting the most painful observation, the speaker refers to the conversation more generally, suggests some shared needs, and frames things in terms of “we.” Each of these aspects can create alignment and togetherness at the outset of a dialogue. Here are two more examples of an initial request for dialogue:

    • “Would you be willing to take some time to have a conversation with me about . . . ?”

    • “Could we sit down and look at what we both need, to see if we can find a way to work this out?”

There are many ways to frame a conversation to create a sense of togetherness and shared purpose. Depending on the context, different facets may be more or less useful.

Options for Framing

Broad view: State the situation in a broad, neutral way that lets the other person make an informed decision about entering the conversation without getting into potentially contentious details.

Feelings: Share your vulnerability, naming feelings that may stimulate compassion.

Shared needs: Include any shared needs, goals, or benefits of the dialogue. State things in terms of “we” rather than “I.”

Appreciation: Are there bonds you share that would support goodwill, curiosity, and care? Begin with appreciation for the other person, what you enjoy about them or your relationship.

Here are some examples of how you might use each of these options.

Framing feelings: “Some of our interactions recently were a bit difficult for me. I’m struggling to sort them out, and wonder if we could take some time to talk about what happened?”

Framing shared needs: “Could we revisit that last interaction? I’d love to find a way for us to both feel understood and supported.”

Framing appreciation: “Our friendship is so important to me; I really appreciate having you in my life. What happened last week was difficult for me and I’d like to find some resolution. Would you be up for talking?”

Each of these examples offers a different way of creating alignment as you enter a conversation. Use discernment to determine which tool is best suited to any given situation.


Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation and Nonviolent Communication. He’s a member of the Spirit Rock Teacher’s Council and a Somatic Experiencing practitioner for healing trauma.

From Say What You Mean by Oren Jay Sofer © 2018 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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