"Dialogue means we sit and talk with each other, especially those with whom we may think we have the greatest differences. However, talking together all too often means debating, discussing with a view to convincing the other, arguing for our point of view, examining pro's and con's. In dialogue, the intention is not to advocate but to inquire; not to argue but to explore; not to convince but to discover." -- Louise Diamond, The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy
People often lack the ability to converse about subjects that matter deeply to them without getting into a dispute. As a result, public discourse about divisive issues is often characterized by destructive debate that can lead to group division and violence.
This is often because parties are operating from different interpretations of facts and events that may not even be fully understood by the parties themselves. When public conflicts are long-lasting and involve seemingly irreconcilable differences of identity, worldviews, and values, parties tend to cling to their own positions and denigrate views of the opposing side. They rarely ask each other questions or genuinely listen to what the other side is saying. In many cases, while one person is talking, the other person is thinking of what he will say when it is his turn to talk. Effective communication is blocked by competition, prejudice, and fear, and parties' ways of relating start to deteriorate. They tend to make impassioned statements about the issues and to focus on moral or logical flaws in the other side's position. Opponents often rely on rhetoric, and become defensive in the face of evidence that their position is invalid or that an opposed opinion is valid. They also tend to stereotype each other and misunderstand each other's positions, causing them to become increasingly polarized. As a result, the atmosphere of conversations is often threatening, characterized by personal attacks and interruptions. Even if parties are secretly undecided about any aspect of the issue, they will not voice these reservations. They may fear that if they do not hold on to their positions, they will look weak or be criticized by their compatriots.
These destructive shouting matches do not help to address long-standing conflicts over public issues. Repetitive communication that is based in entrenched positions tends to close people's minds to new ideas. Parties simply argue more loudly and refuse to be receptive to others' views. These polarized ways of relating pose significant barriers for collaboration, and make informed and empathic problem-solving impossible. Opportunities for social learning are often lost. In addition, because such conversations are filled with rhetoric and accusations, the public is exposed to a very limited discourse in public debates. This detracts from the involvement and education of citizens. In order to move toward productive collaboration, parties need to find new ways of relating to each other that help them to more fully understand the beliefs, meanings, values, and fears held by both their opponents and themselves. Before they are willing to sit down to negotiate or discuss resolution, parties to deep-rooted, identity- or value-based conflict may be willing to partake in such a conversation.
What is Dialogue
Dialogue is a both a kind of conversation and a way of relating. It is a small-scale communication process in which participants may say or hear something they never said or heard before, and from which they may emerge irrevocably changed. The approach emphasizes listening, learning, and the development of shared understandings.
Dialogue differs from other central modes of communication, including mediation, negotiation, discussion, and debate. In discussion, for example, parties try to persuade each other of the accuracy of a particular point of view. The goal is to bat ideas back and forth, evaluate multiple perspectives, and select the best one. Parties try to justify and defend their assumptions and convince one another that their opinion is the right opinion. In discussion, disputants have a tendency to become defensive and reactive.
Dialogue, on the other hand, seeks to inform and learn rather than to persuade. It is a conversation "animated by a search for understanding rather than for agreements or solutions." One is concerned not only about oneself and one's own position, but also about the other party and the position that that party advances. Participants focus on their relationship and the joint process of making sense of each other, rather than winning or losing.
Dialogue has no fixed goal or predetermined agenda. The emphasis is not on resolving disputes, but rather on improving the way in which people with significant differences relate to each other. The broad aim is to promote respectful inquiry, and to stimulate a new sort of conversation that allows important issues to surface freely. While opponents in deep-rooted conflict are unlikely to agree with each other's views, they can come to understand each other's perspectives.
Most dialogue processes involve people who are engaged in protracted conflict, sitting down together to explore their feelings about each other and their conflict. The following conditions help to ensure productive dialogue:
- Participants sit in a circle, so that there is no hierarchy of physical position and everyone can communicate directly.
- While it may be useful to have a facilitator to get the dialogue moving, this role should be limited.
- In a good dialogue, all participants can be heard as they speak to one another across the circle.
- People speak openly, and listen respectfully and attentively. Derogatory attributions, attacks, and defensiveness have no role in dialogue.
- Participants do not make assumptions about the motives or character of others.
- Questions are sincere, and driven by curiosity.
As they listen to one another and relate in new ways, participants learn new perspectives, reflect on their own views, and develop mutual understanding. In dialogue, when one person says something, another person's response expresses a slightly different meaning. This difference in meaning allows parties to see something new, which is relevant both to their own views and those of the other party. The conversation moves back and forth, with the continual emergence of new meaning.
Through inquiry and conversation, parties try to integrate multiple perspectives and unfold shared meaning. This involves uncovering and examining their assumptions and judgments. When people enter into conversations with others, they bring with them basic assumptions about the meaning of life, their country's interest, how society works, and what is most valuable. Most of these basic assumptions come from society and are rooted in culture, race, religion, and economic background. As a result, people coming from different backgrounds have different basic assumptions and values, and these clashing views and perspectives often lead to conflict.
Dialogue attempts to expose these assumptions and the thought processes that lie behind them. It calls on participants to pay attention to their thinking, feelings, assumptions, and patterns of communication. Their patterns of thought include feelings, desires, and ways of interpreting information. Individuals typically have a sense that their way of interpreting the world is the only way that it can be interpreted. They are not immediately aware of the degree to which their conception of reality is biased and influenced by their personal needs and fears. (The essay on cultural frames examines this phenomenon more.)
In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people's behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening. These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.
However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties' concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other. Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the "assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided." Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another's scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear. To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.
Different groups have varying ideas about the specific ways in which meetings should be organized and structured. For example, some suggest that dialogues should involve five to eight people and take about two hours, while others assert that 20 to 40 people should be involved and meetings should be ongoing. However, the dialogue approach has common central elements, which are discussed in detail below.
Immediacy and Spontaneity
In dialogue, communicators are available to each other in the here and now. Their interaction is not rehearsed, but is instead characterized by spontaneity. Rather than trying to protect their positions and egos, participants wish to discover what emerges through their encounter with the other. Parties do not know exactly what they are going to say before the conversation actually takes place. Instead, dialogue presumes that communication among participants is largely unscripted and that the course of the conversation cannot be predicted. It requires participants to view one another as unique and dynamic entities, who are constantly changing and making choices. This spontaneity and unfamiliarity among the participants provides the ground for new learning. As a result, dialogue has unanticipated consequences.
Our assumptions play a large role in the decisions we make and how we behave. They affect the way we experience things and the way we select and interpret information. However, assumptions are so embedded in our ways of thinking that we typically do not notice they are there. This failure to recognize our underlying assumptions and beliefs often leads to ineffective problem-solving strategies. Therefore, dialogue participants are asked to pay attention to their reactions, impulses, feelings, and opinions as they occur, and work to uncover the deeper meaning underlying their thought processes. Identifying assumptions is a way of exploring differences with others, working to build common ground, and getting to the root of misunderstandings. The friction between contrasting values that emerges in dialogue allows participants to notice the assumptions that are active in the group, as well as their own personal assumptions. They can then recognize the self-destructive nature of their current ways of thinking and relating.
Suspension of Assumptions and Judgments
Suspension requires stepping back and looking at how certain assumptions and feelings affect one's behavior. Once they have begun to identify these assumptions, parties should neither act on nor suppress them, but should instead examine them, observing the thought process that underlies the conversation and allowing opinions to come to the surface. Rather than reacting in a hostile way to each other's opinions, parties must examine the meaning of these opposing opinions and assumptions. This requires opening to new and alternative views of reality, rather than trying to defend one's position. When they are tempted to state an assumption about the motives or beliefs of the other person, participants should instead ask a question.
Suspending assumptions makes people aware of their thought processes and brings about an enhanced level of consciousness. It enables participants to become aware of things they would not have otherwise seen, and allows thought to move more freely so that truth can emerge. In addition, when parties' judgments are not fixed, an environment of trust can be created in which parties are open to different points of view.
Inquiry and Reflection
Inquiry elicits information; one gains insight into someone else's perspective through asking questions. In reflection, one thinks about this information creatively, which enables parties to build on past experiences and allows for collective learning. As parties ask questions and listen, they gain greater awareness into their own and others' thought processes, and discover issues that separate or unite them. By pausing to reflect, parties also slow down the pace of conversation. This makes it easier to identify assumptions and patterns of interaction, as well as to look for new ideas.
Effective listening contributes to our capacity to learn and build relationships with others. When parties suspend judgment and genuinely listen to diverse perspectives, they can begin to expand their worldview. Listening allows for the development of new insights and allows parties to be influenced by one another. It also makes parties aware of one another's assumptions and helps them to recognize shared meaning. Once they have listened carefully, parties can make better choices about their actions. Finally, listening is an important part of "confirmation," one of the central aspects of dialogue. Confirmation means that parties endorse each other, recognize each other, and acknowledge each other as people. They acknowledge an affiliation with each other and validate each other's experience. Genuine listening is one of the central ways that parties can confirm each other's existence and worth.
Collective Thought and Collaboration
In dialogue, people think together. One person gets an idea, another person takes it up, and someone else adds to it. Respect for difference supports dialogue. The idea is that all participants have an important contribution to make, and that the full range of their perspectives and ideas is necessary for developing an integrated, whole view.
The goal is for parties to learn from each other, rather than to evaluate perspectives and determine who has the "best" view. They participate in the conversation together, as equals. As they interact and listen to one another, participants become aware of all of the different opinions that have surfaced, and begin to examine them. Rather than trying to persuade or convince one another, they regard their opinions as existing on the same level as the opinions of others. Once they have laid all of the assumptions and opinions of group members out on the table, they can begin to do something that none of them can do separately. They begin to talk with one another rather than at one another, and to listen to one another's opinions. While they may very well continue to disagree, they can begin to think and work in some common area beyond these different opinions. The content of their conversation does not exist prior to or independently of dialogue, but rather arises as they collaborate and relate to one another.
Fostering the New
In order to prevent the recurrence of old, destructive patterns of communication, there must be space for a new sort of conversation to take place, one that avoids the old ruts and dead ends. Parties with radically different views must find constructive new ways of communicating, which can stimulate the formation of new ideas and open up the possibility for change. Deep-rooted conflict is often rooted in issues that people consider nonnegotiable. However, dialogue leads people to question whether their ideas really are absolutely necessary, transforms the way they approach these issues, and opens up opportunities for creativity.
There are various ways to introduce fresh content into the conversation. First, parties must be committed to creating an environment conducive to conversation. An atmosphere of safety and respect is crucial. Parties should ask each other sincere questions, and listen to responses carefully and openly. They should refrain from rhetorical questions or accusations. In order for participants to feel safe enough to loosen their hold on their positions, they must feel that there is no threat to their security, identity, or dignity. This sense of security can be enhanced through the establishment of a set of ground rules and careful facilitation.
Second, participants should encourage personal rather than positional presentations. When communicators appeal to group rhetoric, they tend to get stuck in old arguments, personal attacks, and defensiveness. Instead, parties should tell personal stories about their experience with the issue at hand. These stories complete with human idiosyncrasies, surprises, and compelling moments, draw the attention of listeners and suppress the impulse to argue. They also guide the conversation away from entrenched positions and toward individual perspectives and experience. Participants begin to connect to each other as unique human beings, rather than as advocates for their group or position.
Third, ideas and experiences that are typically dismissed or omitted should be included in the conversation. For example, participants might be encouraged to speak about values that are incongruent with their primary beliefs. Information that is often suppressed in conversation may emerge. As participants note the complexity of one another's views, they are likely to become genuinely interested in what others are saying. This enlarges participants' understanding of the issues, and the subtle nuances of people's views with respect to those issues.
Finally, the dialogue group can participate in exercises to break down stereotypes. For example, participants can list stereotypes commonly held about themselves or their group and then explain which stereotypes are understandable, which totally inaccurate, and which are most painful. This helps other participants get to know them more fully and to see them as multidimensional. It also helps to diminish hostility and distrustand to develop a sense of empathy.
Preparing for Dialogue
As previously noted, participants in a dialogue do not plan what they will say or who they will be. No standard method or recipe can ensure dialogue, and parties should not approach it in terms of technique or a set of rules that govern its use. Rather, they should focus on the relationship between self and other that is created through interpersonal communication. Nevertheless, while the content and the dynamics of dialogue cannot be predetermined, parties can be prepared for dialogue and can develop certain abilities that will make them more equipped for dialogue.
Much of the work required for an effective dialogue is done before the meeting takes place. First, those invited to participate are generally not outspoken leaders. Instead, they are individuals whose unique experiences and viewpoints are likely to differ from the stereotypical images associated with their "side." The meeting invitation indicates what participants should expect, and what will be expected of them. It also explains the broad objectives of dialogue. Participants should agree to attend only if they can commit to participating for the full duration of the process, and if they feel able and willing to participate in a conversation of this kind. This initial preparation of participants is an essential part of the dialogue process.
Once parties have agreed to attend, facilitators usually conduct telephone conversations to get a sense of what participants hope to get out of the dialogue and what they are concerned about. The facilitators can learn much about the fears and hopes of participants in these initial conversations, and can also come to understand the controversy more fully.
Using what they have learned in this direct telephone contact with participants, facilitators then outline a broad plan for the dialogue. This includes aspects of convening and greeting people, procedures by which participants will introduce each other, and opening questions and exercises.
Before the meeting takes place, facilitators collaborate with participants to reach agreements about meeting times and establish ground rules. Participants typically agree to keep meetings confidential, refrain from interruptions or negative attributions, ask genuine, nonrhetorical questions, and speak for oneself rather than for one's "group." They also make a commitment to use respectful language, adhere to limits in speaking time, and give everyone the right to decline to answer a question without explaining why. These ground rules make participants feel safe and help to promote respectful conversation. They also help participants to express intense feelings in a way that is authentic but not attacking. This helps to ensure that parties do not slip back into habitual, unproductive ways of relating and communicating, and helps them to deal with any passionate and fundamental differences they may have. However, beyond these basic ground rules, no firm rules can be laid down. Dialogue is exploratory and is intended to be "an unfolding process of creative participation between peers."
Because dialogue is by its very nature a conversation between equals, controlling authorities or hierarchies have no place in it. However, some guidance is often needed in the early stages of dialogue, to facilitate the process and help it run more smoothly. Rather than telling participants what to do, facilitators provide a context in which constructive conversation can occur. They contribute ideas and try to keep the conversation going through questions and reflections. However, facilitators have no investment in any particular outcome, and the conversation ultimately centers on topics of interest to the participants.
Benefits of Dialogue
Dialogues are commonly used in public-policy conflicts, international conflicts, and ethnic conflicts to build up mutual understanding and trust between members of opposing groups. They do a great deal to enhance public conversation and transform the way parties interact. Through dialogue, public discourse can become more complex, inviting, and informative. Those who engage in dialogue may bring their new ways of thinking and relating back to their organizations, friends, families, or citizen groups. They may question derogatory attributions made about their opponent and may work to combat stereotypes in their larger society. They may also be less likely to accept extremist leaders.
When participants are activists, they can influence the organizations at which they work or can affect key decision makers. When parties themselves are leaders, the impact on public discourse may be even more direct and immediate. Although dialogues do not lead directly to resolution, and this is not their immediate goal, they can help parties to develop new understanding that leads to formal negotiations. This paves the way for effective problem solving and increases the possibility of eventual resolution. Constructive public conversations about divisive controversy thus decrease the costs and dangers typically associated with deep-rooted conflict.
Dialogue also has various transformative effects on relationships. Like transformative mediation, it puts the relational development of disputants ahead of settlement. When people are stuck in protracted conflict, they often view each other as inferior beings with inadequate moral or cognitive capacities. Through dialogue, disputants learn to articulate their own voices clearly and to recognize each other's viewpoints as valid. Disputants honestly express uncertainties about their own position and explore the complexities of the issues being discussed, which can help them to let go of stereotypes, distrust, and reverse patterns of polarization. Thoughts and feelings that are often kept hidden are thus revealed. Disputants can begin to incorporate their different subjective viewpoints into a shared definition of their different needs, motives, and values. As they become aware of the fears, hopes, and deeply held values of the other participants, parties may begin to trust each other more and feel closer to each other. People begin to realize that they have important things in common, which allows for collective learning, creativity, and an increased sense of fellowship. This can help to create a community-based culture of cooperation, collaboration, partnership, and inclusion.
But in addition to the transformation that takes place at a relational level, dialogue can also transform parties at an individual level. Because participants do not know beforehand what they will say, they must listen not only to one another, but also to themselves. Parties must inquire into what conflict means to them and how their own processes and behavior have negatively shaped the course of conflict. As they begin to express themselves in new ways, they come to better understand their own motives and needs. This sort of interaction makes growth and real learning possible, and allows parties to more fully realize the potential that lies within them. In one sense, the self comes into existence through dialogue.
Limits of the Dialogue Approach
Dialogue is effective in a wide variety of cases. It has been used in community settings to address disputes over a variety of divisive public issues: abortion, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, the environment, land use and development, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and education. However, the approach does have some limitations.
First, participants must be willing and able to participate in the process. Dialogue is not appropriate in cases where either side refuses to talk or where there are significant power differences. Because dialogue requires participants to open themselves up to one another, it may not be appropriate in cases where parties cling to their hatred and anger and refuse to listen. Efforts to de-escalate conflict may be necessary before dialogue is a viable approach. It is likewise difficult for genuine dialogue to take place between the oppressed and oppressors. There must be a power balance for constructive and honest dialogue to take place. Otherwise, the conversation may simply be taken over by those with greater power.
In addition, participants in a dialogue may sometimes experience frustration. They are devoting time and attention to a task that has no definite goal and often does not lead in any obvious direction. This may lead to anxiety and annoyance. In addition, because dialogue brings out the deep assumptions of the people who are participating, it can create intense feelings and emotional outbursts. In some cases, these expressions of anger, dissatisfaction, and frustration can provide fertile ground for exploration. However, in other instances participants may try to break up the group, or dominate it and steer it in a particular direction. If they feel they are getting nowhere, they may stop listening and begin to interrupt or personally attack one another. While communication ground rules help to keep this from happening, in some cases it cannot be avoided.
Finally, certain cultural factors constrain parties' ability to enter into dialogue. For example, the emphasis on competitive individualism in the United States has made many people ill-equipped to develop the respect for others that is necessary for productive dialogue. Instead, Americans often assume that communication involves separate people who are simply transmitting messages in order to influence others. Rather than showing a sustained interest in what others have to say, many people tend to turn the topic of conversation to themselves and their own interests. This sort of behavior stifles collective thought, detracts from genuine listening, and makes it unlikely that parties will develop long-term relationships. When parties are unresponsive to topics raised by others and have no interest in learning about others' perspectives, dialogue cannot possibly occur. American-style individualism thus gives rise to "conversational narcissism" and self-absorption, the antitheses of dialogue. These cultural tendencies are not universal and can be unlearned, however. Indeed, many productive dialogues have been held in the United States with Americans on a wide variety of issues.