Dialogue is an overused and much abused term for a very specific means of communication that we rarely employ effectively today. Dialogue is a communications process that helps individuals to clarify their personal thinking and values within the context of a community. It may also help communities or teams discover shared meaning, to think coherently, and perhaps to act in concert in ways that serve the common good of the group. Unlike a discussion or debate, in dialogue there is no attempt to have any particular point of view prevail. Rather dialogue results in shared understanding without judgment. It is about building relationships, learning together and exploring personal and community values.
Early in the creation of a dialogue group, a decision should be made regarding its intent. This is important to avoid creating expectations that will go unmet and subsequent disappointment and criticism of the effort that is sure to follow. Ask the question, is the primary purpose of this work to make a decision or take some action or, is the intent improved individual and collective exploration and understanding of a situation (which may or may not result in a decision or action). This is important. If the primary intent is exploration and learning through inquiry, dialogue is in order.
What is dialogue?
While the word “dialogue” is often used today as a substitute for polite discussion or conversation, it is used here to signify a specific discipline with a particular meaning and intent. A dialogue is a group communication process in which participants practice certain techniques to enhance their individual and collective learning. In dialogue there is a shared commitment to inquiry without necessarily reaching a decision or taking a specific action. In fact, the expectation or even a hope that a decision will be achieved by consensus or otherwise is enough to derail the dialogue process, especially among beginners. This question of intent is important and although you cant force a dialogue to happen, you can provide an environment in which people who truly desire to participate in a dialogue can be supported and encouraged.
It may be useful to think about what a dialogue is not. As stated above it is not a decision-making process, although it can result in relationships among group members that make decision-making much easier. It is not a tool for planning action, yet it can produce the kind of mutual respect and understanding that improves the likelihood of successful group action. It is not led by any single individual, however a facilitator is needed to help get it started and guide the process.
The root of the word “dialogue” is from the Greek Adia or through and Alogos or word, or meaning. Therefore the dialogue process is a stream of meaning that flows through and among the participants. On the other hand, the word Adiscussion@ has the same root as percussion and concussion. A useful image of a discussion might be a ping-pong game using words that bounce back and forth. In dialogue, members of the group can explore but go beyond any individual understanding. New insights may be gained that were not possible through thinking in isolation. Participants help each other observe the incoherence in each others thought as people learn how to think together, sharing thoughts, emotions,
and feelings while reflecting on their own.
So what is needed to get started? Participants need a clear understanding and at least initial agreement on the intent of the dialogue. They should be prepared to make an investment of a specific amount of time to the process of learning and practicing dialogue. Changes in individuals and groups take place over time, but require a personal commitment to the process.
And what happens in dialogue? As stated above, the primary purpose is collective learning. This happens when someone brings up a thought or feeling, another person changes it and then still another connects it with a previous thought or feeling. The thought/feeling flows in a kind of participatory consciousness that may result in both individual and collective learning over time. It takes practice. In addition to the group and individual learning, several other outcomes may result from the process. Quite often, the dialogue results in improved relationships among the participants as well as a sense of shared meaning and mutual commitment to each other. But it isn=t always easy going. When people are involved in a dialogue about something that is important to them they bring their whole bodies into the conversation, their hearts pump faster, adrenalin races, stomachs knot, shoulders tense. Participants get angry, sad, confused and frustrated. If members of the group can identify and share their thoughts as well as their feelings, get help in this process from fellow members, and stay with it long enough, a group consciousness may emerge. While this feeling of connectedness doesn’t last, it can be a time of rapid and marked learning. While dialogue is a powerful communication practice that can transform individuals and groups, it is not easy.
While the purpose of dialogue is collective exploration and learning, it is not necessary to avoid individual advocacy for a particular idea or position, provided the purpose of the advocacy is to further collective learning. Advocacy is generally used for the purpose of convincing a group of the Arightness@ of your own position. Even if this happens in a dialogue, the outcome may be group learning if it is noticed – and the group explores the underlying assumptions of the advocacy position.
The process may begin with a group of diverse people coming together for the purpose of joining in dialogue. While intent is a necessary ingredient, it is insufficient in itself. The result of unguided talk may be interesting conversation and perhaps individual learning, but not necessarily dialogue. If the group stays together without the tools of dialogue and continues to explore differences of opinion, people may find themselves feeling frustrated. Eventually the group may dissolve in embarrassment or a sense of futility. Perhaps heated debate will produce smaller groups that cluster around ideas or people with whom they agree, allowing the Aus and them@ blame game to proceed in comfort, but with little positive outcome. If enough people hang in and begin to search within themselves for the source of their own personal discomfort or anger, a new kind of conversation may begin to happen. By working through the crisis of collective discomfort, a new sense of trust may be forged by the group. This is more likely to happen if the group practices one or more of the living techniques of dialogue.
For more on the need for dialogue, see Meg Wheatleys article on Good Listening at: http://www.noetic.org/ions/publications/r60Wheatley.htm.
For details on the process of dialogue see the instructions for Insight Dialogue at; http://www.metta.org/id/id.html.
The Techniques of Dialogue
While there is no cookbook or rulebook on how to conduct effective dialogues, there are several techniques described by Ellinor and Gerard in their book, Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation, which may be useful. These are:
1. Suspension of judgment
2. Identification and suspension of assumptions
3. Whole body listening
The following section expands on each of these components of the dialogue process. The first rule about dialogue however is there are no rules, no right or wrong way to do dialogue. These are suggestions. Attempts to judge the quality of the dialogue are not generally useful.
1. Suspension of judgment – Suspension of judgment is not about preventing yourself from making a judgment about a person, statement or situation, but rather it is about noticing your judgment as it affects your mind and body in the moment. To practice suspension of judgment, say to yourself at the beginning of a dialogue (and perhaps several times during the dialogue if necessary), AI will be aware of my judgments when they arise. I will not react or do anything other than simply notice my own feelings and thoughts.@ When something is said in a dialogue group that triggers a strong reaction, try to sit quietly in reflection and observe how your body and mind react. Is your heart racing? Are your shoulders tense? Do you have a knot in your stomach? Where does your mind go? If you are highly agitated and feel driven to verbally respond, first try taking a deep breathe and count to ten before you begin the examination. Ask yourself, Awhere does this reaction come from? Ask yourself, Awhy am I reacting so strongly? Hold the suspended thought in front of you and examine it until it goes away. It might be useful to imagine the judgment written on a piece of paper that you hold in front of you between the thumb and forefinger. Once you have examined it for some time, let it go. This process allows you to examine your own assumptions without breaking the flow of meaning in the group that may build collective understanding. When enough members of the group learn to suspend judgment individually, the group is less likely to find itself in periods of rapid-fire give and return, more like a discussion or debate than a dialogue.
If you are not able to let go of a judgment or if it continues to return, share it with the group. By the time you have thoroughly examined your own judgment, the topic of the conversation may have changed several times. Simply remind the group of whatever was said that triggered your judgment and then describe your reaction, both thoughts and bodily feelings. By this time you should be able to share it with less emotion as something of a curiosity to be understood rather than a strongly held opinion. In any case, sharing the judgment will usually allow you to let it go. In some cases you will be surprised at how often others have had a similar reaction to your own. This allows you and the group to examine the judgment as an interesting group reaction, rather than as an absolute truth (which is how the judgment usually seem when it first arises within you). The outcome is a deeper understanding of your individual and collective consciousness.
Judgments close off the flow of meaning within the group. Even if you say nothing out loud in reaction to a statement made by someone in the group, when you are judging you are not yourself open to the flow of meaning. Judgments are thoughts that were previously embedded in your memory. They are Aknee-jerk@ reactions based on past experience that close off your ability to listen and learn in the present moment. While suspending a judgment and observing your response within your own body and mind, you yourself are open to new learning and are not interfering with group learning. When the members of a dialogue group have learned to suspend judgment, it is possible for greater group learning as meaning begins to flow among the group.
2. Identification and suspension of assumptions – Assumptions are the underlying and generally subconscious rationale upon we base decisions, actions and opinions. They are the building blocks we use to create our view of the world. Groups that are not aware of the assumptions at work are like planes flying on autopilot. As long as the conditions that prevailed at the beginning of the flight continue, everything is fine. If something changes however, a higher level of intelligence is required to make appropriate adjustments. Much as a pilot will reassess the weather conditions, a group must examine the assumptions upon which it bases its understanding so that it may navigate during turbulent times.
Assumptions that take on the status of truth often prevent listening and block learning. When group members hold widely differing assumptions they often find themselves locked into irreconcilable conflict. If our intent is to work together with people who hold different perspectives on an issue, it becomes imperative for us all to learn to identify and then to suspend our assumptions much as we learn to suspend our judgments. Since the intent of dialogue is not to make a decision or to take an action, we are more likely to be willing to experiment with new ways of interacting with people with whom we differ.
To uncover your own assumptions listen to yourself when you speak, especially when you speak with some strong emotion, and reflect on the roots of the thoughts you are expressing. Be particularly aware that a strongly held assumption is at work when you hear yourself say (either out loud or silently) things like:
That‘s just the way it is.
You can=t do. . .
It won=t do any good.
Are you nuts?
In each case, ask yourself Awhy?@ Why would a person have to be Anuts@ to believe that (fill in the blank)? If you believe the answer to why is just obvious, dig deeper. Why won’t it do any good? An assumption about how the world is, or how you believe the world is, lies just below your strongly stated emotion. Here are a few more things to look for. Be aware when you hear yourself say:
We all know what they think.
It won=t do any good to talk with them.
Ask yourself how do you know? Generally you are basing your conclusions on some experience or some belief about Athem@. It may be that conditions have changed and your ‘autopilot’ is taking you in the wrong direction. In any case, by assuming you know how others think or act gets in the way of learning. It closes you down to new ideas. You can be sure assumptions are at work when you get angry, feel discomfort, or judge somebody else’s ideas as “just stupid.” When this happens, you are on the trail of an assumption. Take a moment and reflect on the assumption that underlies your reaction. In dialogue, the others in the group may help you identify and clarify your assumptions.
So what do you do when you find an assumption? Its neither realistic to give up your own assumptions, nor expect others to give up theirs. On the other hand, it is possible with practice to suspend the assumption temporarily for purposes of learning. When you hang an assumption out in front of you for examination, you create just enough distance between you and your assumption that you are able to look at alternative opinions more clearly. You and others can begin to see not only the differing opinions but the assumptions that underlay those opinions. When a critical number of a group learn to suspend their own assumptions, the entire group begins to find shared meaning, a collective understanding that is not possible as long as we each hold tightly to the Arightness@ of our own assumptions. The result may not be agreement, but understanding and more coherence of thought.
3. Whole body listening – Listening is a skill that is critical to the creation of an environment of collaborative learning. Most discussions among people who differ in opinion (and many of those with those with whom we agree) are more like dueling monologues. I really don’t have time to listen carefully to what you are saying, because I am too busy preparing my reply. Of course, you are not listening to me either as you are working on your own reply to my reply, etc. etc. etc. Most of us listen from the neck up. Paying attention to your body can help expose your personal assumptions and clarify your values. In dialogue, we learn to listen to others, to ourselves (both head and body) and to the voice of the group as it creates collective themes and shared meaning.
Listening to others is more effective when we are able to suspend our own judgments and assumptions. This opens us up to hearing anothers words within the context of the group environment. While we might like to think that we truly understand anothers viewpoint from their own context, we cant help but interpret meaning based on our own experience. It might be possible however to learn what is real and important to another within the context of the group. This begins by learning more about our own ability to listen. Try this:
Think about a time when you found yourself looking at someone speaking but it seemed like the words were bounding off a glass shield in front of you and they were not going to get through. Ask yourself, where did the shield come from?
Recall a time when you were listening fairly intently and then stopped as your mind began to wander. What triggered the change in your ability to listen carefully?
Now recall a time when you were open to another=s message and were really hearing what was being said. What behaviors were you displaying when you were fully aware of the speaker?
By reflecting on your own behavior, you can begin to understand how your own mind gets in the way of listening to others. Listening is an active process that can be practiced and improved. It may be useful to practice listening to another in pairs with first one person speaking and then the other for determined periods of time. Start with two minutes and work up to 5 or 6 minutes with one person speaking and the other listening and encouraging using only your facial expression and body language. This is hard work but will help you learn how to listen actively.
It seems almost paradoxical that to learn to listen to others we first have to listen to our own inner voices and understand how they can interfere or aid us hear others. The inner conversations we have in our own heads often get in the way of hearing what others are saying. We must learn to silence our own inner voices to be able to listen from a truly open position of detachment. Much like during meditation practice, stilling the mind depends on letting go of resistence. Try this:
- Whenever you notice that you have drifted off from a speaker you are trying to hear, first simply notice that you are not listening intently then take deep breath and return to speaker without judging your failure to pay attention.
- When you truly want to hear another person, look into their eyes and respond to their words with appropriate body language and facial expressions demonstrating interest in their thoughts. In this way you can actively engage in a Aconversation@ without actually saying anything out loud.
- Pay attention to your body feelings. Notice when you get a knot in your stomach or your shoulders get tight. What is happening? What is being said? What is the source of the tension? This may help you break away from the conversation in your head.
When a critical number of members of a dialogue group are practicing suspension of judgment, assumptions and actively listening, a collective meaning begins to be created. Listening for shared meaning can make hidden webs of assumptions more explicit. It can build new levels of understanding possible. Listening for collective meaning can inform us about the culture of the group, about Awho we are and who we are becoming – together. To begin to hear the voice of the group, try this:
When a dialogue group seems to be of greatly divergent opinion on some thought or issue, ask yourself the question what common reality do we all hold? Ask what assumptions do we share? Look for a thread of thought that seems to be weaving itself throughout the conversation. Ask yourself if we were one voice speaking, what would it be saying right at this moment?
It may be difficult to find the common thread if you are actively engaged in the conversation. In a dialogue group, some people will be actively listening to the speaker; others will be listening to their own inner voice, and still others perhaps listening for collective meaning. Listening for the collective voice is a process of inquiry and reflection that allows members of the group to rise above the level of the active conversation and takes the group understanding to a new and higher level. This leap of group perception begins with a question.
Questions that take the group to a new level of understanding are ones that open the field of inquiry rather than either/or questions that limit inquiry to only two lines of thought. Even when a question is triggered by thoughts expressed by an individual, it should be addressed to the entire group to avoid one-on-one conversations. Responses should also be addressed to the group, even when one person asked the question. When a dialogue group appears to be stuck in a closed circle of thought, take a moment to ask yourself what questions have we not asked? or what new thought is trying to take shape here? This often breaks the group out of the closed circle and begins to make relationships and connections more explicit. Remember try to ask open-ended questions.
Sometimes the conversation seems to be going too fast or circling repetitiously. It may be time to move from inquiry to reflection. Fast paced conversations are common when ideas begin to flow but are not necessarily helpful for group learning. In dialogue it may be useful to slow down and even to include some periods of silence. Silence may occur quite naturally among groups well practiced in dialogue. At first, you may need to agree to silence in a more semi-artificial manner. Try this:
Begin each dialogue with a moment of silence. Anyone called to speak may do so at any time but no one, including the facilitator/time keeper should feel compelled to begin the dialogue.
Agree that every half hour a timekeeper will simply state the time. By agreement, everyone goes silent (without cutting off anyone in mid-thought). There is no need to specify a length for the silence. Whenever anyone is ready to speak, they should do so
Agree to take a breath before you speak. This will mean there will be a short break between one speaker and the next and no one will Awalk on another=s words.@
Values & Dialogue
The ethic, or the framework of values, upon which we base our opinions, decisions and actions may be consciously understood or not. Generally it is not. Nevertheless, values are the lens through which we view the world, judge right and wrong, and live our lives. Any discussion of the current status or future direction of agricultural issues always begins at the level of values, whether we are consciously aware of their influence or not.
The term Avalues@ may be thought of as a set of personal beliefs, particularly beliefs about what is good or bad, right or wrong, virtue or vice. These beliefs are often hidden within our subconscious, acting as assumptions upon which we form opinions and base our daily decisions and actions. They are formed through interactions in daily life starting as infants, being reinforced or challenged throughout life. While some values may be so deeply ingrained as to either appear or to actually to be genetically inherited traits (the need for self-preservation for example), most personal beliefs are rooted in our families, communities, educational experience or culture.
Science in this sense represents a system of values or an ethic which has been codified into a methodology and a reliance on objective observation and analysis. According to author Hunter Lewis, science is one of the six principle value systems which humans use to view the world. The framework offered by Lewis in his book A Question of Values provides a way, not necessarily the way of putting the scientific ethic into perspective. It is more important at this point simply to recognize that Ascience@ is one of several systems of values, than to agree on which systems best describe the full range of types of valuation systems. Lewis describes six ways in which we choose to value the world:
Authority – This valuing system relies on the word of another human being or institution such as a religion or government figure (a figure of authority). It is an act of faith that is a common means of determining value. Quite often we rely on parents, teachers or other experts to help determine our beliefs.
Deductive Logic – This valuing system puts beliefs to a series of consistency tests through a deductive reasoning process that includes clarifying thought or speech, questioning, debating alternatives, deducing conclusions from premises, and eliminating fallacies. It is a powerful tool but difficult to use and relies on the assumption that the universe is always orderly and consistent.
Sense Experience – This valuing system provides direct experience through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. It is a means of providing input into other valuing systems but is not Aperfect@ as individuals sensing the same phenomenon often Asee@ it entirely differently.
Emotion – This valuing system is based on internal feelings that something is right or wrong. They are often based on belonging to a group (I=m an American) with a particular way of organizing (I prefer democracy) and are heightened by a common perceived enemy (I’d rather be dead than red).
Intuition – This valuing system is an unconscious and very powerful way of synthesizing large amounts of facts and theories with extraordinary speed. It is particularly useful when trying to understand complex situations but can be easily biased by emotion.
Science – This is a valuing system that relies on sense experience to gather facts from a world external to the observer, intuition to create a testable hypothesis, logic to create a test, sense experience again to observe the facts, and logic again to draw conclusions. It is a particularly powerful way to understand simple, measurable systems that do not involve humans.
While one system of valuation may be more effective than another depending on the situation, it is not necessary to choose one over another for the purposes of dialogue. In fact, it will likely reduce the chance of real communication among people with diverse experiences. It is necessary however, to recognize that all humans use more than one system for determining value at different times and that generally the valuation system upon which we base our decisions is working at a subconscious rather than a conscious level of awareness. Further, even when we do reflect on the value roots of our beliefs, we are likely to come to inaccurate conclusions if we do so in isolation. For example, the preference for the process of science is often confused with the preference for the authority of the scientist. When this preference is shared and discussed in a dialogue forum, it is possible to come to a deeper level of awareness than when reflecting alone.
Maturana and Varela in their groundbreaking book, AThe Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding contend that whenever we are in disagreement with someone with whom we want to remain in coexistence, we must let go of certainty or absolute truth. The environment which we create in dialogue allows individuals with diverse interests and different value systems to bring forth a new world where coexistence may thrive. They write; Every human act takes place in language.That is, every social interaction is an act of language whether or not words are exchanged. In fact, much communication occurs without using words. They continue; Every act in language brings forth a world created with others in the act of coexistence which gives rise to what is human.All social interchange among humans is based on an ethical framework (which is generally hidden but made more explicit in dialogue).
Dialogue is a form of communication that not only improves understanding but transforms those who engage in it as participants bring forth a new world based on shared meaning. In dialogue we examine our individual and collective thinking, exploring assumptions and moving us Aupstream@ to where our belief systems dwell.
Lewis, H. A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices that Shape our Lives. Harper & Row Publishers; San Francisco. 1990.
Ellinor & Gerard. Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation.
Maturana, H.R. and F. Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. (Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1987).
Dialogue Guidelines Summary
Adapted from; http://www.metta.org/id/id.html.
The following are the teaching and practice lessons from Greg Kramer, the Metta Foundation.
- Commit to process: Bring your full energy to this process and to each moment.
- Pause-Relax-Open (PRO): Before you speak, stop and breathe, and then open yourself to wonder and awe.
- Trust Emergence: Allow whatever is supposed to happen, to happen. Expect surprise.
- Speak the truth: Listen deeply and speak with confidence, but discernment and presence.
- Release roles: With humility, move beyond the surface personality, titles and roles.
- Surface assumptions: With creativity, see beyond the presuppositions and tangles of mind.
- Observe judgments: Recognize the endless flow of judgments that come to mind.
- Share parallel thinking: Become aware of the constantly arising stream of thoughts and feelings and have the courage to share them.
From; Meditating Together, Speaking from Silence Experiencing the Dharma in Dialouge. Published by the Metta Foundation. Author – Gregory Kramer; 310 NW Brynwood Lane, Portland OR 97229, (503)292-8550; firstname.lastname@example.org.