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Dialogue: An Opportunity to Create Meaningful Communication

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Dialogue is more than just idle talk. It is conversation with a purpose of deepening understanding and finding common ground. Today’s article discusses the characteristics of dialogue. We hope that leaders will use this form of discourse when the issues are vital and the need for developing deeper trust is critical.


Dialogue is derived from the Greek “dia” which means across or through and “logos” which translates to meaning. Webster’s dictionary defines it as an exchange of ideas and opinions aimed at resolution. Dialogue is about inquiry and change, not advocacy and winning. It concerns developing new options, new ideas and creative approaches where none currently exist. “The purpose of dialogue is to create communication across the border that separates participants”. Mark Gerzon, Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006.

Dialogue forces participants to look inside themselves at their assumptions and the world views that drive their story about “the other” in the conflict dynamic. By directly addressing these assumptions it helps parties enhance trust and thereby develop innovative ideas where none previously existed. Increased trust promotes creativity. Questioning assumptions is a fundamental principal of dialogue. “Much of the energy for transforming conflict is buried in the soil of our assumptions.” Id at 169.

Comparing dialogue with debate, another popular form of public discourse, is like looking at the difference between a test tube and a wide funneled flask. Debate is a combative process, with a winner and a loser, fixed assumptions and defensive listening. By contrast dialogue is about finding common understandings, discovering new options and questioning assumptions.

Fear, which is prevalent in high conflict, is one of the prime reasons why dialogue doesn’t take place. If a leader can’t harness the fear he or she will probably use other forms of discourse with little likelihood of success. The conflict will probably be perpetuated. In low conflict situations where assumptions and goals are shared by parties other forms of discourse, such as direct negotiation, council or discussion may be appropriate and productive. (See our June newsletter)

The Public Conversations Project is well known for the dialogue process. They are dedicated to preventing and transforming conflicts driven by deep differences in identity, beliefs and values. These are exactly the types of conflicts that are so hard to resolve. Maggie Herzig and Laura Chasin, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from The Public Conversations Project, JAMS Foundation, 2006. “An effective dialogue reduces stereotyping and increases mutual understanding”.

Types of dialogue

Reflective dialogue: explores underlying assumptions
Generative dialogue: creates new options and possibilities
Dynamic dialogue: permits different perspectives to engage each other
Action dialogue: designed to lead to concrete next steps or outcomes. Gerzon at 152.

A dialogue needs to be planned very carefully and consciously in order to be effective. It begins with an assessment of the history of the conflict and the participants involvement in it, developing a tentative design for the dialogue process, inviting and engaging potential participants and finalizing the dialogue plan. All of these steps need to take place before the dialogue begins. The dialogue should be professionally facilitated followed by an evaluation of the process and planning for next steps.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: asadmin

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