Using a Dialogical approach with Black Men
Thinking about the book “Between Person and Person: Toward a Dialogical Psychotherapy (1993)” by Richard Hycner reference to this idea of the “between” and the importance of the interhuman relationship has made me think about the relevance of the Black Daddies Club (BDC) Sunday Dinner monthly online gatherings for Black men that takes place on the Zoom platform on the last Sunday of each month. The idea of this initiative was planted in my head, when I had a conversation with a friend of mine in 2017, whose name is Ajamu and is a gay Black man from England who is a renowned photographer and educator. He spoked to me about a conversation series he hosted in London, England in the 80’s and 90’s which was aimed at Black men who identified as straight, gay and bi-sexual. He spoke about the impactful conversations that took place from these face-to-face gatherings that took place and the learnings that these men who attended these events walked away with. The idea of doing something similar excited me and also terrified me, because I was worried for things that I couldn’t control, such things as homophobia or people feeling traumatized by something that was said in a conversation, is it even possible to create safe spaces for these kinds of conversation is something I wondered?
Importance of I-IT and I-Thou relationship in working with Black men
In November 2020, during another lockdown created by the Covid-19 pandemic in Toronto, I decided to launch the first Sunday Dinner online gatherings for Black men from various entry points on the Zoom platform. Since we started last year, I have noticed that over the past 5 months of delivering the Sunday Dinners online gatherings, I have seen some connections to some of the ideas that is written about in the book “Between Person and Person: Toward a Dialogical Psychotherapy (1993)” by Richard Hycner. Taking a dialogical approach has been important to Sunday Dinner gatherings as one of the goals has been to co-create the space with the Black men that attend these sessions, meaning that the agenda for the most part is created with the men in the space. Using a dialogical approach, we are able to utilize the shared wisdom, brilliance and lived experience that each person brings into the space, rather than speaking down to the attendees or “objectifying them using I-It relationship” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.7), we have implored to using the approach of “I-Thou relationship which begins with a turning of our ‘being’ to our partner” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.6). There is a necessity in both the I-It and I-Thou when it comes to dialogue to experience the fullness in human interaction, this taken up by Lynne Jacobs in their chapter entitled Dialogue in Gestalt Theory and therapy, from the book The Healing Relationship in Gestalt Therapy: A Dialogic/ Self Psychology Approach (1995) by Richard Hycner and Lynne Jacob. In the chapter they state, “The I-It mode is vitally necessary for survival, the I-Thou for the realization of personhood. As Buber stated, ‘Without it a human being cannot live. But whoever lives with only that is not human (1970, P. 85)” (Hycner & Jacob, 1995, p. 52).
Utilizing technology to decrease the isolation Black men face
Another goal of BDC Sunday Dinners online gathering is to decrease the isolation of Black men who are navigating the aloneness that can come with this pandemic, so by creating an online space where these men can be in dialogue with each other has been deeply impactful. Also utilizing certain functions on the Zoom platform and using the approach that I have learned through my classes at Gestalt Institute of Toronto during the pandemic, by going in-between the main room and breakout rooms for deep conversations. These men have given feedback on how much these breakout rooms have been useful for them to connect with each other. The dialogical approach has been useful for connecting Black men who identify as straight, gay, trans-men, bi-sexual and non-binary, who are open and willing to locate the place of connectedness that lays between them. This is highlighted by what Hycner states in the following:
“Genuine dialogue can only emerge if both persons are willing to go beyond only an I-It attitude and truly value, accept and appreciate the other person. Ultimately, this requires a transcendence beyond our separateness. It means a willingness to acknowledge and enter into what Buber describes as the realm of the Between.” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.8).
Making space for the vulnerability of the organizer
This dialogical approach also gives me the space as the person who is organizing the Sunday Dinner discussion sessions to enter into these conversations revealing my own vulnerabilities and insecurities as a Black man. I have come to believe the dialogical approach helps me from sitting into a power dynamic of only observer or the objectification of the other Black men who are in dialogue in the online space. Hycner found that there was “no theory which adequately addressed in an integrated manner what was going on within (the intrapsychic), between (the interpersonal), and beyond (the transpersonal), the therapist and client.” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.34), this tells me that there has to be a meeting between myself as the organizer of Sunday Dinner and the meeting between the Black men attending the Sunday Dinner conversations. The Interhuman experience that happens between Black men is necessary for true contact to be made in a dialogical conversation, as Hycner recalls his understanding of Martin Buber’s writing on the interhuman sphere.
“In accordance with this, it is basically erroneous to try to understand the interhuman phenomena as psychological. When two men converse together, the psychological is certainly an important part of the situation, as each listens and each prepares to speak. Yet this is only the hidden accompaniment to the conversation itself, the phonetic event fraught with meaning, whose meaning is to be found neither in one of the two partners nor in both together, but only in their dialogue itself, in this ‘between’ which they live together. (Buber, 1965b, p.75)
Personal Challenges with Dialogical approach
The book also made me think about some challenges with the dialogical approach to interhuman interaction in therapy, let me be clear the challenges are not in the theory themselves, but more the challenges with myself in my current phase or stage of personal growth being able to perform these aspects of the approach. The first thing I found challenging was trying understand this concept of the “Art of psychotherapy”, and how is it achieved? Hycner speaks about the importance of the therapist being able to balance being connected and disconnected while in this process with the client, he stated: “This perhaps the most demanding aspect of the profession- it requires the therapist to simultaneously integrate the art, as well the science, of psychotherapy. The neglect of either is a disservice to the client.” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.14). The other idea I found challenging is the idea of the “wounded healer” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.15, meaning that the therapist is also navigating their own wounds and trauma while they are supporting their clients navigate their own baggage’s of trauma and wounds, Hycner states “It is a paradoxical profession because the therapist has to confront issues in other people’s lives which the therapist may not have resolved in his own life” (Hycner, 1991/1993, p.15. This was one of the main reasons why I chose to come to Gestalt Institute of Toronto, the idea of the first two years of the program was focused on working on myself, and some of my blind spots was extremely attractive and it still is. However, I have realized that It will take a life time to do this work and this emotional work around personal growth will be a continuous and life-long journey. This book brought up some anxiety in realizing to do this work in this way, there will be a need for true vulnerability between the therapist and client, which kind of burst this idea of therapy being a power imbalance between the therapists and client, this notion that the therapist is all knowing, or that they do not have any dents in their armour is released which in some ways brings relief that in this approach there is not an emphasis for the therapist in performing to be inhuman but rather the emphasis is placed on both the humanity of client and therapist.
Theory versus Experience
Navigating through my journey in Gestalt therapy over the past two years, I have been struggling with this inner tension of imposter syndrome due to the fact that I didn’t have any psychotherapy theory in my toolbelt prior to coming to Gestalt Institute of Toronto. In contrast to a lot of my classmates, who have done work in their past as a counsellor, therapist, wellness coach, etc. or some have gone to other post-secondary institutions for psychotherapy. Where I arrive to this work is from an experiential location, my lived experience as a Black man in a big body, through the Black Daddies Club working to create spaces for other Black men to see themselves in the between with other Black men. I am constantly working through this tension of my lived experiences of my humanity and theories of psychotherapy and how the two intersects, in the book “Beyond individualism: toward a new understanding of self, relationship & experience, by Gordon Wheeler, 2000, the tension of using only theory for this work, he states:
“Why do the theories we have now seem to so unable to serve this purpose, so incomplete? Worse, why do we experience them so often as divorced from the applications they are meant to ground and support, or from any wider picture of human functioning and experience – as if theory were one thing, and practical reality something else entirely (in which case why bother with theory)? Again, why is there is no unified field theory of psychology and human nature, hardly even the quest for one any longer—an integrated picture of who we are and what we need, that would join self to the world of other selves, behaviour to experience, and context and purpose to meaningful, effective action in the domain of real living?” (Wheeler, 2000, P.7-8)
In closing there is a richness in a dialogical approach which allows for the humanity to exist with each other, which promotes learning and connectedness, this is becoming increasingly important as humanity navigates isolation brought upon us by the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Hycner, R. (1993). Between Person and Person: Toward a Dialogical Psychotherapy. The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc.
- Hycner, R & Jacob, (1995). The Healing Relationship in Gestalt Therapy: A Dialogic/ Self Psychology Approach. The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc.
- Wheeler, G. (2000). Beyond individualism: toward a new understanding of self, relationship & experience. GIC Press.
By Brandon Hay (MES) April 2021