Steps in Relating

By Tim L Kellebrew

Steps in Relating: An Essay on Martin Buber, The Dialogical Relation, and Loving

Those of you who know my training, background and education, and perhaps some of my academic writings, already know that my mentors and teachers included among them a number of philosophers, existentialists, and psychotherapists and healers. Some of these were well known psychologists such as Rollo May and Irwin Yalom, and some were direct students of the philosopher, Martin Buber. (Consequently, some of these teachers lectured and held seminars at the Institute of Dialogical Psychotherapy where I was a student in 1989 and 1990). Some of these teachers were biographers of Buber and spent time with him and embraced his teachings. It is the philosophy of Buber and the example of these persons themselves that made the greatest living examples of acceptance, affirmation, and confirmation that has made a difference in the direction of my own existence.

Steps in Relating

To me, the steps in relating involve:

1) Approaching in genuine dialogue;

2) Respecting the uniqueness of the Other person;

3) Accepting and affirmation of the other person in all that he or she is;

4) Confirmation of who the Other person is.

These steps lay the foundation for expressions of friendship and love. First, we approach with a genuine nature. This means that we do not misrepresent who we are, nor do we intend to deceive. Honesty is important, if others are to form an authentic and genuine response to us and if they share that value of authentic representation–then a true meeting can occur. I would say that by the very approach of authenticity you as the communicator, helps to create an atmosphere of authenticity where the other person has a proclivity to respond as such. (That does not guarantee that they will be authentic). You can understand that if we do not each approach one another in that way–there can be no understanding of the Other’s true uniqueness or their natures.

Does that honesty always mean total self disclosure early in a relationship? No, of course not, but our responses with ourselves and others are basically not meant to mislead–if we are striving to be authentic.

This authentic approach is the ultimate responsibility because that is what any true dialogue requires. In a sense it is the genuine encounter across all space and time. Buber called this approach the difference between being and seeming. Approaches based on seeming may seem to have more to do with deception, propaganda, or downright lying. In some cases, media or other representations may be based on seeming–that although we understand they are fictional accounts–it is still not the deliberate intending to deceive in a personal relation that I am referring to–and may not be seeming in the strict interpretation. In such cases, they are fictional representations that are meant to entertain us, and we may even be instructed by them about some truisms. Of course there is the Aristotelian notion that we are identifying with what is being performed on a deep human level that through empathic identification we experience a catharsis.

Secondly, we respect the different qualities of the Other. This is their uniqueness. It means we respect their culture, where they are right now, and all that makes them a person. Do we have to like it all? No. Do we respect it? Yes. Do we disagree with their views–yes, definitely at times we do. In this respect, I do not try to make the Other person into a copy of myself to be liked by me, nor do I demand that they conform to my expectations about them. Will others change as a result of our dialogue? Yes. More importantly, will we ourselves also be changed as the result of the outcome of dialogue? Yes. Some call this act–esteeming the Other. Carl Rogers may have called something similar to it as: Unconditional Positive Regard.

Thirdly, once we are aware of the differences of the Other person, then we accept them for who they are. This is deeper than recognition and respect of their otherness. This is like saying ‘YES’ to who they are and represents a complete acceptance of who they are. While this aids in tolerance it creates an interesting setting where a true meeting can begin.

Interestingly enough, this step of acceptance may involve a process of affirmation as well. Did you ever think that accepting someone in their present moment–might also allow them to see, discover, or release their own self acceptance? You are basically accepting them as a person. As Buber seemed to imply, affirmation is different from pure acceptance, because in affirmation we are stepping closer to confirmation.

The fourth step in the relational stance follows closely after the third (some might say it is a step within acceptance and affirmation, but does seem to follow those acts relationally). Thus, I delineate it here; and that is Confirmation of the Other. That is, an important understanding to our acceptance of the Other person, is that following acceptance, that person might be able to recognize or release their own potentiality? In that respect accepting someone in their present moment, also accepts them in their own potentiality for who they might also become.

My mentor, Dr. Maurice Friedman, said to me in person once: “True confirmation means that I confirm my partner as this existing being even as I oppose him (or her). I legitimize (them) over against me as the one with whom I have to do in real dialogue.” And this making present, “…is no empathy or intuitive perception, but a bold swinging into the other which demands the most intense action of one’s being, even as does all genuine fantasy; only here the realm of one’s act ‘is not the all possible’ but the particular, real person who steps up to meet one, the person whom one seeks to make present as just so and not otherwise in all his (or her) wholeness, unity, and uniqueness.”

Regarding Love and the Relational Stance

While there may be many problems (epistemological, philosophical, and lived out) in what I have written here, my main emphasis is that all relating is composed of distancing and relating. In relating if we approach another in an expression of love, utilizing the steps of the relational stance as I have mentioned here, it will greatly aid the expression of love that we are showing them.

If the immediacy of love is enhanced by face to face encounters there is no doubt that such a relational stance can be lived out between two persons face to face. Does this preclude a dialogical encounter in cyberspace? No it does not. Cyberspace is well known for the propensity to enable deception or provide an anonymous mask for the communicators and those that relate through such means–so the temptation is there to behave in ways that some might not if they did not have such a mask, or were encountering each other face to face.

This is problematic–but meeting others socially and expressing love can occur through written means if we are being sincere. Writing down our communications in email and through chat can be misleading even though we do not intend for it to be so. We must take extra responsibility and diligence to be more cautious in our communications there.

I am convinced however, that we can express respect, acceptance, affirmation, confirmation, and even love, in this manner. We can find a loving friend, and support, even on the internet if we are following the basic steps of friendship and perhaps, some of the steps in relating that I have outlined here. It may be that some would argue that true loving friendships will eventually result in the persons meeting face to face and seeing how they are together–and definitely if their love is to take a more socially recognized form such as marriage, I think most of you would agree with this. I think most of you will also agree if we take the relating steps seriously, the internet can help us decide if a person we meet thus, is someone we would want to meet and encounter face to face!

Pure loving moves the dialogical approach into another deeper realm that I shall discuss in more detailed entries later. Some of Buber’s biographers have pointed out that this was most influenced by Buber’s own relationship with his wife, Paula, and how she was so important to him and his life.

Tim Kellebrew is an American born business consultant, writer, and counselor and psychotherapist. He resides in Portland Oregon and Shanghai China. You can reach him through his business email at

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