We hear and see the word all the time, in headlines, diplomatic initiatives, self help resources, and more. You’ve likely used it yourself many times over. I certainly employ it on a regular basis. Yet despite its relative familiarity, when is the last time we dug into the meaning and significance behind the concept of dialogue? Taken at face value it is likely to have a nominal, perhaps gratifying, presence in someone’s life. However, understood more deeply, dialogue can open up new spaces of communication and shared innovation, an exciting discovery all on its own.
Simplistically, dialogue can be understood as open-minded communication between two or more persons. Originating from the Greek prefix “dia” and root “logos,” the word can be broken down as “moving through or across” (dia) and “meaning” (logos). Synthesizing this etymology with the word’s modern meaning, already we have an interesting idea on our hands: meaning that emerges by moving across or through multiple people. And already we have stumbled onto one of the deeper, existential undertones to the concept of dialogue: meaning sought through dialogue is not the same as the sum of multiple perspectives. Dialogue creates something new that is only possible through collaborative communication.
Dialogue is not debate. In a debate, parties are attached to their ideas and opinions, seeking to prove or assert their own correctness. In dialogue, one assumes there is something to be learned from the other participants. It is understood that the process itself will reveal solutions or insights that neither party would likely arrive at on their own. A dialogue is never about silencing someone else. It requires attentive listening, and a basic interest in what is common among participants – if nothing else, their shared humanity. We discussed different types of dialogue in our July 2013 newsletter.
The underlying fundaments of dialogue offer us a profound way to think about communication. Famous thinkers such as Paolo Freire, Thich Nhat Hanh, and David Bohm saw in dialogue the embodiment of equality and the opportunity for peace and justice. Before them, Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination asserted that to truly advance knowledge a work must not seek to simply assert, dictate, or define truths as though in a vacuum – it must always remain in dialogue with other works.
At its core, a dialogic perspective tells us that no matter which institutional hierarchies are in place, or which power distributions are normalized, we will never further our understanding unless we open our minds and treat everyone at the proverbial “table” equally. Ultimately each person participating has the same claim on reality as a living, breathing human, as every other participant, and therefore must be heard without prejudice. This realization underlies the concept of dialogue, and when we take it on it influences the way we communicate and listen to those around us.
“In true dialogue, both sides are willing to change”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ
When it comes to putting this perspective into practice, it takes some thoughtfulness and awareness. Often dialogue is about addressing difficult issues laced with passionate disagreement, and this means emotions can run high. For a dialogue to take place it is important to make a space “safe” for everyone involved. This can involve addressing the psychosocial space, such as laying linguistic or verbal ground rules, or it can involve addressing the literal physical space in which the dialogue is meant to take place. It might involve your own personal preparation, such as taking some meditative time before entering a dialogue so that you feel calm and reflective. As the quote at the beginning of this section indicates, entering into a dialogue is a kind of commitment to openness, and could even be understood as a commitment to nonviolent communication. Without the appropriate attention and preparation, a dialogue can end up being driven by the fears of participants, and will be unlikely to maintain its open character.
Specific techniques such as the temporary suspension of judgment, the suspension of assumptions (or the willingness to be flexible with assumptions should yours be called into question), and whole body listening can help foster successful dialogue.
The Public Conversation Project works to transform conflicts through dialogue, and is an excellent place to look for examples and further information regarding dialogues on an international scale. For some more reading about the theory of dialogue, try this chapter.
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.