When people are in genuine dialogue, the content that is being communicated does not exist prior to and independently of that particular context. Dialogue is a success when parties say something they have not said before. Dialogue implies something more than a simple back-and-forth conversational exchange. It is a communication process that allows participants to change and be changed. Parties don't know exactly what they will say and may say something they have never said or thought of before.
There are four related but distinct conceptions of dialogue discussed in contemporary literature on the subject. One, derived from the philosophy of Martin Buber, conceives of dialogue as a form of human relationship. This tradition sees dialogue as fundamentally concerned with the development of self, the knowing of the other, and the formation of relationships. A second uses dialogue to refer to the intricacies of human conversation. This tradition sees dialogue as an immediate, face-to-face act of communication that involves various rules of etiquette.. A third views dialogue primarily as a cultural form of knowing. This tradition suggests that we can use the study of human discourse to study dialogical relationships. Finally, a fourth understands dialogue in terms of textual understanding and interpretation. This tradition sees dialogue as a mode of thinking and questioning. Knowledge arises out of this process of questioning positions.
The authors wish to develop a conception of dialogue that is well suited for the field of conflict resolution. This conception centers on eight basic characteristics.
- Immediacy of Presence: Participants are relatively uninterested in bringing about specific outcomes. Their communication is to a large extent unscripted and unrehearsed. They are concerned with the "here" and "now" of communication.
- Unanticipated consequences: Dialogue leads to communication that cannot fully be predicted. It is fundamentally improvisational.
- Recognition of "strange otherness": Participants refuse to assume that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other. They are willing to be surprised by unfamiliar positions different from their own.
- Collaborative orientation: Dialogue involves a high level of concern, both for self and for the other. This does not rule out heated exchange, but does take the focus away from winning or losing.
- Vulnerability: Dialogue involves risk. Parties are willing to share their ideas as well as be persuaded by others.
- Mutual implication: Each speaker anticipates a listener or respondent and incorporates him/her into one's utterances. Dialogue is a process in which speaker and listener construct self, other, and their talk simultaneously.
- Temporal flow: Dialogue emerges from a past, fills the present, and anticipates some future. It is also a process within which isolated segments cannot be separately analyzed.
- Genuineness and authenticity: Participants assume that others are speaking from experienced positions, that they are being honest, and that their thoughts and feelings are authentic. All parties strive to speak genuinely and honestly.
Dialogue is largely a matter of the quality of relationship and of communication patterns that sustain that relationship. Important are the attitudes participants bring to an encounter, the ways they talk to one another, the consequences of the meeting, and the larger context in which the dialogue occurs.
But of course, dialogue and communication begin with the self. Some have suggested that we know ourselves only in responding to others. Our "selves" arise in response to concrete situations and circumstances. In dialogue, we find ourselves "open" to and "present" with another. A conversation that leads to irrevocable change may result.
However, there are at least two characteristic of dominant U.S. culture that work against the development of dialogue. First is the emphasis placed on individualism and the tendency toward conversational narcissism. Second is the tendency to look to techniques to handle virtually all problems, including human relationship. Both characteristics tend to limit our opportunities to enter into dialogue.
One who believes that the individual is the greatest good may be unable or unwilling to develop the respect for another involved in a dialogic perspective. Those caught up in the culture of competitive individualism are not genuinely interested in other people. Instead, they tend to be self-interested, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. There are four ways in which narcissistic characteristics reveal themselves during conversation. First, individuals tend to be self-absorbed and arrogant. Second, they seek to exploit others by way of deceit or manipulation. Third, they constantly attempt to make themselves the center of attention. Fourth, they tend to protect their personal space and find it difficult to form intimate relationships.
Two ways of responding to others during conversation are shift responses and support responses. While shift responses move the focus of the conversation to oneself, support responses keep the topic focused on the other person. An individual who is constantly shifting the focus of the conversation away from others and toward oneself is incapable of genuine dialogue.
In addition, individuals in the U.S. tend to be pragmatic. They think of most things, including human relationships, in terms of means and goals. Communication is then understand as a set of skills and techniques. However, developing good techniques does not assist dialogue in everyday relations. In fact, the use of technique may erode individuals' respect for one another. To participate in genuine dialogue, parties must instead look at the relationship between self and other that is created through the process of communication.
Central to this relationship is parties' confirmation of one another. Confirmation is the process through which people are endorsed, recognized, and acknowledged by others. The modes of confirmation are varied, but all are important for individual development. Fulfillment of the human need for personal confirmation is fundamental to the dialogic process.