What does it mean to be “dialectical”? (How to stop arguing)

Dialectical refers to the concept that two ideas that oppose one another can both contain truth! This is EARTHSHATTERING once your wrap your head around it.  We have to stop playing tug-of-war with oak trees (i.e. our stubborn loved ones, when we are just as stubborn)! What I often see in families/marriages is frequent fights and bickering over NOTHING of significance which leads to fights of great significance.  For example:


Person 1: “where do you want to go to dinner?”

      Person 2: “um…how about Italian? Eggplant parmesan sounds SO GOOD!”

      Person 1: “ugh…no…I want a burger”

      Person 2: “Well then why did you even ask me?”

      Person 1: “What’s your problem? I was just talking out loud, whatever…fine…we can get Italian”

      Person 2: “Forget it. I’m staying home”


Sound familiar? What we teach in DBT® is how to see the commonalities and work WITH the other person, rather than against them.  We must learn to validate any and all parts of the other person’s point of view.  This will immediately reduce their emotional reaction!   One commonality in this example is that both person one and person two are hungry.  Another is that they are both motivated to go out to a restaurant.  In my example, pay attention to person one.  Instead of perceiving an argument/threat, person one tries to validate and join with person two.  Let’s start there…


Person 1: “where do you want to go to dinner?”

      Person 2: “Oooh…good idea! I AM hungry!”

      Person 1: “Me too…I was thinking we should go out somewhere for comfort food, you?”

      Person 2: “I can get behind that idea! I am tired and don’t want to do dishes.  Are you up for Italian, American, Mexican…?”

      Person 1: “I hear ya, we have had a long week! For some reason…a burger sounds good to me.  Would you be ok with that?”

      Person 2: “For sure, I am not craving anything specific…I am sure I can find something good on the menu, let’s go!”


Look at the difference there.  Just by joining with and validating the other person the conversation goes so much smoother.  We encourage mindful communication in DBT®, which means engaging non-judgmentally and curiously into the conversation, slowing down so that both people are heard, and really participating in the conversation – rather than clinging to your side so rigidly.

Dialectics can be applied in all arenas of your life.  In order to be dialectical, I strongly encourage you to work on being curious.  Having curiosity about another person’s opinions can be a great tool as you will be naturally less judgmental and more open to seeing why they have that view.  Dialectical thinking will make people flock to you because it permits you to be a more easygoing friend; everyone wants to talk to/spend time with someone who is open to new ideas!

Dialectical dilemmas also happen internally.  I will admit, these can get a bit tricky.  An internal dialectical dilemma is when you are at war with yourself, ceaselessly arguing your emotional mind with your logical mind.  These dilemmas are exhausting and also make you less fun to be around as you will be a bit on edge.  As an anxious person myself, I often get into dialectical arguments with myself over whether to attend a social event or whether to stay home.

When you find yourself in these battles, internally or externally, the trick is to notice it and work on finding the synthesis.

A dialectical dilemma is when you are experiencing the impasse associated with clinging to your strongly held belief, while blocking any understanding of the other person’s point of view.  These can also happen internally, when you are arguing with yourself over the best course of action. Dialectical dilemmas also occur between yourself and your environment.  Sometimes this is you vs a peer, sometimes it is you vs and organizational rule, sometimes it is your vs your family.  Dialectical dilemmas that include another person, include at least twice the emotion!

A step-by-step guide:

Step one:  The first step is to identify and fill in the opposing thoughts. This can take some practice, be patient with yourself!

Step two: Drop the stubbornness and curiously explore each side.  This means you have to breathe and stop clinging to the side that you feel more passionately about RIGHT NOW. This requires you to have compassion with yourself and your thoughts.

Step three: Begin a list under each thought of what makes sense about that point of view. You must come up with answers under each thought, even if they seem silly or you have judgments about writing them down.  If you block your thoughts, they will only fester.  You may need to ask others for help here or take breaks and come back to it. Questions to ask yourself are:

  1. Why is this thought/point of view valid?
  2. What would I or do I want to achieve if I take this position?

Step four: Work on coming up with syntheses.  These are win-win ideas in which you meet at least one goal from the list on each side. It won’t always be 50/50; however, you will feel less frustration and more peace with the decision as you honored BOTH sides!

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