Dialogue in Consultation

A dialogue is a conversation where two or more people exchange information, opinions and points of view with the intention of gaining better understanding and closer agreement.  It is well suited for counselling and systemic practice. While dialogue cannot be standardised, it is possible to consider what are the areas of dialogue that relationship overviews are useful for bringing out in consultations. 

Consultations are converstions where someone is seeking guidance concerning a situation that is causing them some uncertainty.   By definition, dialogues are discussion around differences in points of view, where various implications, pros and cons, are aired with the intention of achieving a better, closer understanding.  The subjects for discussion are best considered in an unhurried way, and the question of what to do is dealt with later rather than sooner.

In a monologue, one person will tell another what they should do, but in dialogue a consultant’s role is to help other participants to think through and reconsider their situation.  Dialogue is a creative process with the potential for solutions to emerge and where everyone can learn.  A consultant shares their impressions in a tentative way, encourage alternative ways of considering and understanding, explores resources and does not rush toward solutions.

Movement is an essential element of dialogue as there is a continuing to-and-fro, from the one to the other.  There is an expectation that differences of perspective will be brought up and aired in a respectful way.  Talking about a problem on the same way that it was formed in will be unlikely to create movement, so present understandings must be challenged, and alternative perspectives brought to the fore.  In a dialogue there is a potential for development for all participants when a situation is viewed in a new way that is acceptable and possible to act upon. 

A professional consultant will often have ideas that they can bring to the conversation and say “Here is a thought, a way of looking at things, something research points to.  Is this something that seems meaningful to you?”  In dialogue, knowledge has to be managed with humility as there are many aspects to a person’s situation about which a consultant has little or no information and these will contribute the context for what is adequate or appropriate. 

People seeking help usually need to feel that they are being met, that they know who the person is that they are talking to.  The young people from the Change Factory in Norway say “Give a little of yourself.  Do not take over the conversation with your own business but be visible as a person”. Some people feel alienated, apart from others, and participation in dialogue can help them to feel more included in humanity, not strange, different, fated, but together.  A story from another person can bring in an element to reflect over, throw light in another way.  Ask “Is there something here that says something to you?” It may or may not, but if can be a relief to hear how someone else has struggled, that they are not alone in their problems. A consultant contributes by creating the context for dialogue and they bring their history, their own narrative.

In conversation there are spoken voices that expressed openly and often other silent voices in the minds of the participants that are going on in parallel.  In this respect, two people usually sit with at least 3 conversations when they talk together, one that can be heard in the room and two that go on in private. The outer, spoken dialogue, will also have to influences the inner conversations by giving them the opportunity to be expressed and brought into dialogue.  The inner conversations also need to be moved from monologue to dialogue if there is to be lasting positive change. 

6 Areas of Dialogue

With dialogue at the core, the inner ring of this model covers populating and surveying a relationship overview, making comparisons, exploring alternative perspectives, reconsidering understandings and addressing what to do and how to do it.


These are dialogues around choosing figures and seeing them as people and then placing them to form a relationship overview. When someone chooses a figure for themself they can begin by talking about how they see themselves. When they choose figures for the people in their life who are important to them they can continue by talking about the way they get on with them.

Having a figure to hold can help reflection over ‘what that person means to me and what I mean to them’. Choosing and placing figures easily opens for dialogue around central relationship themes, such as attachment and belonging.

Questions arise like who is important to me, how I know them, what we do together, how they know each other, and how they get on.  You can ask questions like “If that person was here, what would they say about themself?”, inviting them to put themselves in the position of the other person.

Figures are given an element of life once they are selected to represent somebody and then they encourage stories. How they stand is a rich source for conversation their relationships and can invite curiosity about the points of view of that other person. 
When the figures are placed on the table you can enquire about where they stand, in relation to each other, how the people they represent get on with each other, what they do together, and so on.

You can ask someone about who they look up to, who gives them comfort and support, the history they have had together, and the parts they play in each other’s lives.  Pets and other animals can also be included. Enquire whether there is anybody who is no longer present in their life but is still important to them and whether they want to choose a figure for them too.  Ask where they can place them, what they have meant to them and how they think about them now. 

If a particular placement catches your attention, share your curiousity and ask about your impression. 

Enquire whether there is anyone who makes them unhappy, causes them trouble, hurts or frightens them and what they do to make things bad.  Talk about who they can go to when they are hurt or upset, what makes them feel safe, who understands them, who can explain things to them.

Surveying an Overview

In times of difficulty, people can esily over-focus on the day to day tribulations of their situation and lose sight of the larger picture. They cannot see the wood because of all the trees and need help to elevate their point of vantage. Surveying is about considering the wider context and gaining fresh perspectives of how things could be different. Surveying invites dialogue about contextual aspects of their relationships and stimulates curiosity about various points. It invites reflection over the question ‘What is in my life?’. When a situation is visualised it is also clarified, less confused, entangled and bewildering. Surveying a relationship overview can give an impression of how things are relate to each other and bring a sense of order into situations that are experienced as chaotic.  It can be easier to identify resources that have been overlooked.  Fresh perspectives lead to new opportunities for change.

Surveying questions
Looking at how the figures are arranged here, what impression does it give you? 
What words would you choose to describe it?

How do the different people know each other, what do they do and how do they get on?

Do you see any groupings, contours or boundaries?
What influences do you see that people in your life are having on your situation? 
Is there anyone or anything that is missing, that should be there?
If you look at this from another angle, do you get another impression? How does it look from there? 
Is there anything you would like to adjust or change?  Is there anything here that you think needs to be different?
What do you see that you dislike, is difficult, causes harm? 
What things are entangled, confusing and perplexing?
What do you appreciate, is helpful and gives you strength?
What in your life gives meaning to you and how you live?
What gives you direction?
What values are there in this?

Comparing Perspectives

Making comparisons is a powerful way of helping people gain fresh insights and renewed understandings. They can bring flexibility to unhelpful points of view that are locked as being the only truth. They can help people to see things from another person’s point of view and bring out creativity. Relationship overviews are well suited for comparing and contrasting different situations and points of view. As figure arrangement are moveable, and this gives flexibility for forming various perspectives that can be compared and explore in dialogue. When the perspectives are compared, they provide a rich source for conversations about understandings and the possibility for change.

Here are some of the kinds of comparison that can be made through different arrangements of a relationship overview:

Time - How things looked in the past and how they look in the present.  This could also be before and after a particular event or situation.
The dialogue can be about what are the differences, how they have come about, the implications they have had, what could have been different, what they have learnt from the change.

Hopes and fears – Comparing how a person hopes things will turn out with how they are worried they may become.  The dialogue can concern the likelihood of each outcome and what turns of events are likely to lead to the different outcomes.   What would be necessary to avoid things turning out badly.  What would the implications be for others?

Ambivalence – Comparing how a person sees things from a positive, optimistic attitude and from a negative, pessimistic attitude.  The dialogue could turn to how to develop and maintain a helpful attitude, who can support it and what and who would undermine it.  This could also be from other contrasting perspectives such as ‘from my rational side’ and ‘from my emotional side’.

Someone else’s perspective - Rearranging the relationship overview to show how a person believes that another person sees the situation (it could even be how the family dog or the fly on the wall would view things).  Do you think other people would see this in the same way as you?  Who would see things differently?  How would they see it?

Family perspectives – In family sessions, each family member’s perspective can be compared to others.After a family member has set out the figures you can ask other family members to show whether they have understood their situation in a similar way or differently. For example, you can ask a parent to keep their child’s figure in place but move other figures to demonstrate how they have understood their child’s situation. Then you can talk about the differences and what they have meant. This can provide better insight into how they understand each other, how well they mentalize each other.

Relationship overviews make strong visual impressions and it is a good idea to arrange more than one perspective to make comparisons, so that the representation is not remembered as being ‘how things really are’ but rather as ‘how things look from these perspectives’

Exploring Situations

A relation overview can become an arena for exploration where alternative aspects of a situation can be brought into the picture. Figures from relationship overviews can be used for illustrating and playing out events, situation or incidents significant to a person, their relationships and self-image. Figures can be used to set up a scene and enact how a situation was experienced and how they could have been different. Exploring situations past or present can help to see if there are more helpful ways of understanding them for regaining control over their situation.

There are a few ways of exploring with figures:

This is taken from sociometry, also developed by Moreno as a way of researching social groups.  Spectrograms are based on simple scales going from ‘Very Little’ to ‘Very Much’ where people place themselves according to their view or evaluation of a particular issue.  Figures can be placed on a line on the table to illustrate how a person sees different people’s evaluation of particular themes and the dialogue can centre on various aspects of these evaluations. 
Themes might be
Influence in decision making
Motivation for a change
For or against - Positive Negative attitude toward…
Anxiety (and other emotions)
Engagement in a matter
The dialogue can continue about the reasons people stand where they are, the implications of their positions, the likelihood of change and so on.

Role play
The figures can also be used to demonstrate events and situations that have been important to the person, what they remember and how they experienced them.  They can be used to explore particular situations or incidents that are or have been significant to the person, their relationships and self-image through playing out how a person remembers the situation.  This would involve setting out figure of the people involved to make a small scene in the table.  Articles from the room could be added to help set the scene.  The situation can then be played out as a figure theatre to show how the person remembers it. 
It can also be played out again from another person’s point of view.
It is also possible to play out a ‘repaired’ version of a situation where someone or something intervenes to prevent it turning out badly and make it turn out well.  This can to take some of the pain out of the memory of what has happened and can reduce self-blame that often accompanies being subjected to a traumatic experience. 
If there are issues for children at school, they can select figures for teachers and other pupils that are involved. Many issues centre around rejection, mocking, threatening and bullying in the classroom, playground or on the way to school. These stories are often hidden from the parents and teachers even when they have a good general understanding of the school environment. 

One form of exploring is inviting a person to put themselves in the position of another person and answer in the way they think they would answer.  They can hold the figure of the person concerned to help focus their thoughts on how the other person would answer question about the situation.
Role-reversal and is taken from psychodrama therapy method developed by Jakob Moreno.  To go further with this method, it is helpful if they move and sit in another chair to mark that they have changed perspective. You can ask about how they think the other person would describe them if they were asked.  It is now possible to talk with the person in the role of another and discuss their views and opinions of a situation and how to deal with it.  In role reversal there is often a conversational exchange between the person and an imagined other where the person swap seats as they swap roles.

Externalising problems
Michael White and David Epston developed the narrative method of externalising problems. An externalised problem can be represented in some way - by a figure, an article, drawn on a card, modelled in plasticine.  Figures can be used to set up and play out a scene typical for the dominant narrative where the externalised problem is causing difficulty.  Dialogue can move to situations that turned out better, who or what would made a difference and how to use this information to help tame the problem and regain control of one’s life. 

Solution focus
A scene can be set up with figures where a particular difficulty is no longer present and the person or family can talk about what life is like now, how relationships have changed and what is concerning the people now.  The dialogue can trace back to how they managed to arrive at this situation.
Whenever people set out figures they will be exploring as well as demonstrating their own perspective. There is a duality of statement and question ‘This is how I see it’ and ‘Is this how I see it?’


When a person sets out their own figures, they can become aware of aspects of their relationships, and the way they think about them, that they had not considered before. A person’s perspectives and the implications they have for their relationships can be reconsidered in the light of new information from dialogue around relationship overviews. In relationships it may well involve understanding another person in a different way. People can make important changes in their lives when they begin to think and feel differently about their situation. Re-viewing is about reflecting over the present situation and deciding whether it is tenable. It can may lead to accepting the situation as it is, or deciding to try to change it.  Reflections over fresh insights gained from relationship overviews help people to re-assess their attitudes, actions and understandings reconsideration of the person’s perspectives and the implications they have for their relationships. When a person talks out loud about their situation, they are not only talking to other people, they are also ‘talking to their ears’.  They hear their own voice rather than just thinking. There is energy in hearing your own words and a larger commitment to action.

Now we have looked at the situation, what do you think about the way the figures have been set out? 
What changes do you think it is appropriate to make to the way the figures stand in relation to each other?
Which way of looking at things do think needs replacing?  What could take their place?
What do you see that you cannot change and have to find a way of accepting?

Some questions of principle do not necessarily have clear answers but can be reflected over.

What is it in your life that has meaning for you and for the way you live?
What defines who you are and gives you direction?
What is not in your life that should have be there?
What can and cannot make up for something that is missing?
What is in your life that is harmful to yourself or to others?
What values are important to you in this?

Preparing for Change

Dialogue about what to do and how to do it, the changes a person wants to make and what will empower them. People usually decide to go to counselling or therapy aiming to make some sort of change, wanting to get direction, but some others around them may disagree. From renewed understandings of relationships issues, dialogue can turn to apply and integrate change to the various aspects of daily living, utilizing resources and collaborating to manage difficulties, that are constructive and mutually satisfying.  Changes are best made in dialogue, with deliberation, consideration and unhurried - a step at a time - not rashly, headlong and inconsiderate. Dialogue can concern what does and does not need to be changed, what are the alternatives, how changes can be realised, how to deal with the implications and results of changes, when and at what pace the changes are best made.  Dialogue around a relationship overview can help lift a person from feeling victimised by their circumstances and can make them more aware of the power and influence that they can have themselves and together with the people around them.

Talking about

What constitutes improvement and what are the benefits to me and those I care for?
Who can I trust to support me?
What hurdles are in the way and what can empower these changes? 
Who am I uncertain about and who will resist me? Who represents risk?
What criticism and pressure am I likely to meet and how can I strengthen my own resources to meet these?

Harsh situations

Dialogues about relationship overviews can reveal serious power abuse as central aspects of the difficulties people face.  Attempts at making changes may be met with strong resistance and in some situations, the possibility of sanctioning, threats, harm and violence.  The issue of safety will need be dealt with.  Involving all parties in a constructive dialogue about the situation is the best way of proceeding.  If this is not possible it is important to talk about how to make alliances that will keep people safe.  It can be helpful to form an overview of safe relationships and supports and then talk about how prepare and engage resources, people and helping agencies. 

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