We have suddenly gone beyond ordinary conversation and are now beginning to hear, truly understand, learn from each other, and create together as we share authentic expression. We are thinking together, meaning now flows freely, and we are learning from the transformation that is dialogue.
- Through Words,
- Thinking Together,
- A synthesis and interweaving of ideas,
- A flow of meaning,
- Interchange among thoughtful peers.
Root: Dia Logus, “Through Words”
Dialogue is the creative thinking together that can emerge when genuine empathetic listening, respect for all participants, safety, peer relationships, suspending judgment, sincere inquiry, courageous speech, and discovering and disclosing assumptions work together to guide our conversations. It is an activity of curiosity, cooperation, creativity, discovery, and learning rather than persuasion, competition, fear, and conflict. Dialogue is the only symmetrical form of communication. Dialogue emerges from trusting relationships.
Dialogue is a form of conversation that is distinct from discussion, debate, distraction, dismissal, delegation, disingenuous, diatribe, and dogma because dialogue is the only form of communication where the participants act as authentic peers. All other forms of communication emphasize a power relationship that interferes with the synthesis, analysis, and interweaving of ideas that characterize dialogue. Dialogue is driven by genuine curiosity and respect rather than by power. Deliberation describes a period of thought and reflection that can take place during any conversation. Rapport is a close synonym to dialogue.
Specific attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can move us toward dialogue or away from it, toward dichotomy and fragmentation. The following table characterizes the distinctions:
|Authentic curiosity, discovery, and disclosure. Revealing information, assumptions, and doubts. Done with others. I, thou.
||Disingenuous manipulation, secrecy, and persuasion. Disguising and defending assumptions and doubts. Maintaining distance through a polite façade or direct confrontation. Done to others. I, it.
|Cooperation and genuine respect. Peer relationships; equality. Trust and safety. Candor. Willing collaborators.
||Competition, criticism, and dismissal. Displaying power; coercion. Distrust and danger.
|Listening to understand. Empathy.
||Listening to respond and rebut; reloading. Apathy.
|Exploring, examining, innovating. Inquiry.
||Making and scoring points. I win, you lose. Advocacy.
|Choosing to explore; inventing new ideas, creating, learning, thinking.
||Choosing to ignore; defending old postures, thoughts, and assumptions.
|Synthesis, combination, alternative viewpoints, integration, coherence, new possibilities. Collective intelligence. Building up, feeling constructive.
||Polarized, dichotomous thinking. Fragmentation and incoherence. Focusing on fears. Anxiety. Arrogance. Tearing down, feeling destructive.
|Appreciative inquiry. Shared inquiry. Seeking the strengths and possibilities in the other's ideas. Discernment.
||Criticism. Searching for flaws and weakness in the other's ideas. Judgment.
|Deferring closure to allow complete understanding, agreement, and enduring support.
||Closing quickly to solidify your position.
|Identifying faulty reasoning, information, inconsistencies, or assumptions. Willing to give up ground.
||Attacking the person. Taking ground.
|Seeking an inclusive viewpoint; valuing and accommodating diversity. Revealing assumptions and discrepancies.
||Advocating a one-sided point of view; valuing conformance. Defending a point of view and the assumptions it encompasses.
|I can learn from you. Inclusiveness. Our doubts help to cleanse our truths.
||I am right, just listen to me. Be reasonable, do it my way. Resistance is futile.
|Courageous speech. Candor.
||Serial monologue, harangue, attacks, bloviation, obfuscation, equivocation, posturing, rehashing, gossip, small talk, party line, and idle chatter.
|Balance of advocacy and inquiry.
||Advocacy displaces inquiry.
|Comfortable with complexity and subtlety while seeking elegance.
|Together we can seek the truth. Let's journey together to find it.
||I know the truth. It's my way or the highway.
|Essence; a journey to the center of the being. Curiosity and flow.
||Image. Fear, anxiety, and anger.
|Initial doubts leading to enduring certainty.
||Initial certainty leading to enduring doubts.
Balance Inquiry and Advocacy
Dialogue requires the skillful use of four distinct practices to balance inquiry—seeking to understand—and advocacy—being understood. These can achieve the rhythm of respiration, first inhaling the ideas of others and later exhaling expression of your new ideas. These four skills: listen, suspend, respect, and voice appear in the diagram on the right and are described more fully below.
Listening to understand: Hear their words; learn their meaning. What is the person saying? What ideas do they want to get across? What are they feeling now? What is important to them? What does this mean for them? What is not being heard? Why? What is their truth? How can I connect with them? What can I learn from them? What have I been missing? What are we all missing? How can this new information change my point of view? Who is not being heard? What are the inconsistencies, dilemmas, and paradoxes? What new frame of reference can provide coherence? Concentrate on direct observation, stick to the facts, dismiss your old thoughts and assumptions, stay in their moment, hear their story, and defer interpretation. Listen without resistance as you notice your own resistance. Notice how you are reacting. Be still; stay silent inwardly and outwardly.
Suspending judgment: Defer your certainty while you explore doubt and new possibilities. Stop, step back, adopt a new point of view, and reflect from this new vantage point. Frame up—adopt a broader reference frame. Allow inquiry to displace certainty. Embrace your ignorance. Be willing to disclose your own doubts. Acknowledge what you don't know and don't understand. What am I missing? What am I protecting? Reject polarized thinking. Hold your tongue and defer forming opinions, jumping to conclusions, quick fixes, and assigning blame. Become aware of your inner reaction, but don't react outwardly. Have the discipline to hold the tension within yourself while you silently examine and reflect on it. Remain curious. Identify and examine your assumptions and theirs. Work to understand how this problem works, how has it arisen? Cope constructively with your fears and anger. Do not attribute motive or intent. Don't yet agree or disagree while you remain curious and reflect. Defer and dismiss conclusions, explore alternative meanings and motives, integrate these new ideas with the whole, and seek congruence.
Respecting all: Attribute positive motives and constructive intent to each participant. Appreciate all that is good about them, all that you share in common with them, and all they can contribute. Acknowledge the dignity, legitimacy, worth, and humanity of the person speaking. Allow for differing viewpoints and learn all you can from them. Examine the origins within your self of any tendency you have to disrespect participants. Resist your temptation to blame. Remain humble and accept that they can teach us and we can learn from them. Attain and appreciate their viewpoint; do not attack, intrude, deny, dismiss, dispute, or discount their comments. Banish violence.
Speaking your voice: Contribute your insight to advance the dialogue. Be patient and gather your own clear thoughts before you speak with candor; clearly, directly, and authentically. What is most important to express now? Offer your insights. Share how you feel, what you don't know, and your own doubts and concerns. Speak courageously from your own authentic voice. Avoid sarcasm, barbs, attacks, insults, reification, and condescension. Inquire and ask only genuine questions arising out of curiosity and not belligerence. Test assumptions. Speak in the first person from your actual experiences. Speak your truth.
Dialogue is a dynamic process that requires a delicate balance. Inquiry—seeking new understanding—combines the skills of listening while suspending judgment to gain a deeper and newer understanding. This is balanced by advocacy—seeking to be understood. Advocacy combines respect for all participants with the courage to speak your voice, share your insights, and advance the dialogue toward a new understanding of the whole. Dialogue requires a balance between the analysis of inquiry and the action of advocacy. Inquiry and analysis alternate in balance with advocacy and action. The diagram illustrates a spiral path that encourages dialogue to emerge. Beginning with listening, we then suspend and reflect, respect others, and then speak our voice before resuming our listening. The dialogue advances the group toward the whole at the center as the participants think together.
Family therapist David Kantor describes four distinct roles that dialogue participants adopt dynamically as the dialogue proceeds:
Move: Initiate action to move the dialogue in a particular direction. Set a direction and provide clarity.
Follow: Support, amplify, or derive a similar direction suggested by the preceding move.
Oppose: Raise an objection to highlight possible problems or point out what may not be quite right with the current direction.
Bystand: Propose a new way of thinking, a new viewpoint, a new reference frame, or a new direction that bypasses, transcends, or overcomes the temporary deadlock, expands the thinking of the group, and shows the way toward further progress. Provide perspective and encourage reflection.
All four roles are required to move the dialogue along. People fill one of the roles temporarily as the conversation needs each particular type of contribution to move forward. Each role takes into account the variety of viewpoints already expressed, incorporating much of the information that has been suspended during the dialogue. The roles are dynamic, the person who opposed in one instance may move in another or bystand later on. All four roles are necessary. Without a move, there is no direction. Without the follow there is no momentum. Without the opposition, there is no critical thinking and correction, and without the bystanders, deadlocks persist and there is no breakthrough to new understanding.
Conversation groups that do not achieve dialogue often get stuck in a move-oppose cycle that repeats without making progress.
The maze shown at the right illustrates how the four roles work together to move the group toward the shared central understanding; the whole at the center. The move gets thing started and the follow helps keep things going. However progress seems stalled when it encounters opposition. After considering all viewpoints, the bystander suggests a novel path for the group to continue along.
Dialogue is easily spooked. There are many common obstacles that prevent dialogue from emerging. Removing sources of fear, suspending the exercise of power, eliminating external influences, removing distractions, and providing excellent communication conditions can all promote dialogue.
Fear prevents dialogue. People are often afraid to trust other participants, consider new ideas, and open up to the new possibilities that dialogue requires. People hold back and fail to participate fully and genuinely because of their fears. Suspending judgment is often an act of courage. Remaining open to new ideas; doubting, questioning, or abandoning beliefs you have held for many years, adopting a new viewpoint, releasing attachments, hearing someone for the first time, abandoning the status quo, thinking in a new way, allowing for change, acknowledging your old habits and beliefs, abandoning your stubbornness, admitting you don't know or don't understand, admitting you may have been wrong, exposing vulnerabilities, anticipating the ramifications and future consequences of new ideas and agreements, becoming authentic rather than merely polite; and confronting assumptions, issues, and people, can all be scary. These obstacles require courage to overcome. Speaking truth to power and challenging the opinions and beliefs of others requires courage. Finding your voice requires courageous thinking. Speaking your voice requires courageous action. Have the courage to dialogue.
Dialogue requires autonomy. Speaking your voice requires thinking for yourself and making your own decisions. Dialogue requires adopting an internal locus of control and rejecting an external locus of control. Repeating the opinion of others, deferring your own judgment to someone outside the room, appealing to the views of your chosen experts or luminaries, defending a special interest, holding conflicting interests, running a secret agenda, reciting dogma, remaining star struck, going along to get along, deferring to fate or luck, or introducing external constraints such as “my boss requires . . .” or “everybody knows. . .” all prevent you from making your own decisions and speaking your own voice. Shed these external constraints so you can think for yourself, represent yourself, speak for yourself, and participate in the dialogue. Speak in the first person about your own experiences and beliefs.
Dialogue requires focus. Multitasking seems to be emerging as the new status symbol. But dialogue is hard work that requires your full and present attention. Listening for meaning requires focus and full attention. Suspending judgment requires self discipline. Speaking your voice requires presence and thoughtfulness. Respect often requires patience and cannot be rushed. Reading mail, talking on the phone, text messaging, surfing the net, side conversations, watching the clock, preparing for the next meeting, writing notes, showboating, or wishing you were elsewhere are all distractions that will prevent you from fully participating in dialogue. Your lack of attention and concern also distracts others and may prevent them from participating in dialogue. Either focus your full and undivided attention on the conversation, or leave the room. Expect this focus of the others.
Dialogue requires careful, detailed, delicate, and nuanced communications. Poor room acoustics, physical distance, language differences, accents, jargon, local vernacular, unfamiliar vocabulary, cultural differences, unshared abstractions, logical fallacies, intentional and unintentional distortions, hearing difficulties, and poor sound systems can all prevent dialogue from emerging. Collocated participants in a private room free of distractions sitting comfortably in a circle where everyone can easily see and hear everyone else promotes communication that can help dialogue emerge. If language differences exist, then effective translation services, including cross-cultural translations, are required.
Remove the obstacles described above, assemble and engage the stakeholders, create the space, increase safety, build trust, level power, defer decision making, demonstrate empathy, invite the group to do something truly important, and then stand back. Perhaps an important dialogue can emerge and meaning will begin to flow.
The power of dialogue has achieved some successful solutions to very difficult problems. Here are some examples:
- The San Diego Dialogue project is contributing to the advancement of research, relationships and solutions to the San Diego-Baja California crossborder region's long-term challenges in innovation, economy, health and education.
- The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation works to give people a voice in important issues. Their website documents many successful dialogue projects.
- Conversation Café groups are improving conversations and strengthening the interconnections among people across America.
- “We need to use dialogue to focus on the collective problems of living together in communities.” ~ Daniel Yankelovich
- “People don't listen, they reload.”
- “Dialogue prepares us to make decisions.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “The unity of contraries is the mystery at the innermost core of dialogue.” ~ Martin Buber
- “Dichotomy begins with a certainty that eventually leads to enduring doubts while dialogue begins with doubts that eventually lead to enduring certainty.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “Inquiry and violence cannot coexist.” ~ Peter Garrett
- “The magic of dialogue is that it really does enhance respect and acceptance of others.” ~ Daniel Yankelovich
- “Eschew Obfuscation.”
- “There is something valid in every position.” ~ Johan Galtung
- “Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.” ~ Lactantius
- “Flattery is no substitute for listening.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “Beware the terrible simplifiers.” ~ Jakob Burckhardt
- “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind's worst disease.” ~ Sent-ts’an
The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, by Daniel Yankelovich
Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together, by William Isaacs
On Dialogue, by David Bohm, Lee Nichol, Peter Senge
Six Thinking Hats, by Edward de Bono
How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, & Get What You Want, by Meryl Runion
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton
The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, by William Ury
Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, by Roger Fisher, and Daniel Shapiro
Motivational Interviewing, Second Edition: Preparing People for Change, by William R. Miller, Stephen Rollnick
On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt
Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work, by Johan Galtung
Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, by Maurice S. Friedman
The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly, by Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, Tom Callanan, and John Ott
Standards of Responsible Communication, published by the Center for Responsible Communication