The Origins of Voice Dialogue
A brief history of the origins of Voice Dialogue
by Sidra Stone, Ph.D.

“Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands. Every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. As a body everyone is single, as a soul, never.” 
From Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Hal and I have lived long and creative lives. We have been impacted, directly and indirectly, by a number of teachers. Both our professional and personal journeys have been rich and complex. Certainly the single most important contributor to our work has been our own relationship. The relationships with our families (parents, siblings, children and grandchildren) and our relationships with students and clients have also impacted our lives and our work. Dreams, transpersonal experiences, moments of sudden clarity or inspiration that seem to be gifts from sources outside of ourselves have also contributed their share to our work.

These outer influences blend together and merge within each of us. Therefore, the origin of any specific concept, is often indistinct. When either Hal or I sit down with a client, when we exchange ideas with one another, or when we begin to write, we do not think about where our thoughts come from. They just flow.

There are, however, a number of rich and varied strains that we recognize as having contributed directly to our lives and our work. These various sources come together and blend like the fragrances in a perfume. This is an ever-changing process, with some scents dominant at one time and others dominant later. There is a first impact or impression and then the lingering scent. There are primary notes and undertones. Some scents remain the same. Some emerge only after the perfume has been on the skin for a while. Some disappear as time passes. So it is with our work. Sometimes one source, or scent, seems more important and sometimes another. Sometimes the combination produces one impression, and later, it produces another.

People’s first reactions to Voice Dialogue are usually: “That’s a Gestalt technique” or “It’s psycho-synthesis.” Interestingly enough, Hal’s actual work in Gestalt started only after Voice Dialogue was definitively established and although I had some contact with very early Gestalt work, my experience of it was extremely limited. As for psycho-synthesis, we were both fascinated with its use of imagery, but neither of us had delved deeply enough into it to know about its concepts of the different selves. Nor were we particularly influenced by psycho-drama or TA, having only a passing acquaintance with both of these through the popular press.

We have always honored these various approaches as having some relationship to Voice Dialogue since they were clearly a part of the general psychological culture in the early 70’s. At the same time, we recognized that our own creative process was based upon a very different, and unique, set of experiences. The roots of our work go far deeper than our exposure to these newer schools of thought. We came from two contrasting, one might even say conflicting, backgrounds. However, there are some crossovers that aren’t apparent at first glance.

Hal, as you know, was Jungian trained and the Psychology of the Aware Ego and the Selves is, at base, truly Jungian. If you look closely at our work, you will see that our “family tree” is analytic. The selves are an outgrowth of the Jungian complexes. They are not exactly complexes, but they reflect these as truly as a grandchild reflects her grandparents. If one moves deeply enough into any particular self, one can discover that it is the archetypes that provide the core of the selves.

My own thinking was most strongly influenced by Hermann Hesse and Nikos Kazantzakis. These were men whose lives were deeply committed to the evolution of consciousness. All of their books explored the opposing forces within men’s selves, what we would call “the tension of opposites”. Both men were influenced by Henri Bergson and based their world views on the existence of an “Žlan vital”, a creative or evolutionary impulse within each of us, a powerful force that moves us towards continual evolution and greater consciousness.

In the mid-fifties a friend gave me the book Steppenwolf, which is quoted at the beginning of this article. It was the most impactful book I had ever read. It was my introduction to the many selves and to the “Magic Theater” in which I could begin to view my own tumultuous inner cast of characters. Once I peeked into my own Magic Theater through the doors opened by this book, my view of life and of people was unalterably changed. I could no longer look at any of us as single entities. From that moment on, I was fascinated by the many selves that I could see in myself and those around me.

Interestingly, Hesse was deeply influenced by Jung and this, I feel, provided much of the crossover between Hal’s Jungian background and my own thinking. Kazantzakis, on the other hand, was a Cretan by birth and Greek to the core. His thoughts, much like those of the Jungians, were never far from the ancient gods and goddesses on one side, and Christianity on the other. His greatest book, The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, was like a Bible to me in my own intellectual and spiritual wanderings.

The other major influence on my thinking was the early operant conditioning work of Skinner. When I first studied psychology as an undergraduate student, my department was behaviorist and experimental in orientation. We were all devout Skinnerians. Simply stated, our belief system at that time sounded like this: behavior, any behavior, that is followed by reward (or positive reinforcement) is repeated and becomes a part of the personality.

This Skinnerian outlook still affects the way in which I look at behavior. I look to see how each bit of behavior is, or was, in some way adaptive. Thus, when I talk to a primary self, I expect that if I am persistent, I will eventually find how it helped to protect the vulnerable child. It was my Skinnerian background that suggested to me that each of our primary selves developed to either bring us rewards, or to help us avoid pain. Thus, each of our primary selves was truly helpful at one time and should be honored as such, even if it is no longer particularly useful.

These, then, are the deepest roots of our combined belief systems. As for the concept of the Aware Ego and the theory of bonding patterns, these ideas seem to have been gifted to us from other realms. As with many new concepts, both historical and current, these ideas appear to come from another dimension. We feel honored to be the recipients of these new ways of looking at the psyche.

The technique of talking to a specific voice has a totally different history. Hal heard about something like this from Dr. Hedda Bolgar who was at that time the director of Clinical Psychology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. This was in the late 60s and Hal was a consultant to the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry. Hedda told about a meeting at which a therapist had talked to a whole series of voices in a client. She was very impressed by this work.

Hedda’s description of this caught Hal’s imagination and he called this man, at that time a professor of psychology in Santa Barbara. This professor had no particular interest in this work or in exploring it further. Hal does not ever remember his name. However, Hal then began to experiment with this way of working by practicing with Judith and Joshua Stone, his children and with Thea Saroyan, his wife. He knew that this talking with the selves was significant, but he did not think of its implications and it did not seem to belong to his professional life.

Hal brought this idea to our relationship. After his first experiment with my Vulnerable Child, we realized that we had come across a great tool and we began to use it as the core method of our mutual exploration of consciousness. For me, this was the way to enter and fully explore my own Magic Theater, something that I had yearned for intermittently over the previous 15 years.

Hal and I feel that this original development in relationship, rather than in the scientists’ laboratory or the clinician’s office, is responsible for the basic feeling tone of the Voice Dialogue process. – It is accepting, honoring, respectful and non-judgmental.

  • It is never pathology oriented.
  • It explores with interest, even fascination, open to all possibilities.
  • Each person’s selves are treated as unique.
  • There is no emphasis upon uniformity; and there is no attempt to fit the selves into preconceived categories.

In the Voice Dialogue process one looks for what is positive in all voices, even when dealing with aspects of the psyche that are often viewed with distaste, fear or judgment.

The remainder is written elsewhere. The Voice Dialogue process and the Psychology of the Aware Ego and the Selves gradually developed first out of our own relationship and then from the direct experience of working with thousands of individuals over a period of 25 years.

These, then, were the beginnings. Our work continues to grow, enriched by everyone who works with us and we look forward with excitement and anticipation to the next steps in our own journey.

Copyright by Delos, Inc., 1994