We have suddenly gone beyond ordinary conversation and are now beginning to hear, truly understand, learn from
each other, and create together as we share authentic
expression. We are thinking together, meaning now flows
freely, and we are learning from the transformation
that is dialogue.
- Thinking Together,
- A synthesis and interweaving of ideas,
- A flow of meaning,
- Interchange among thoughtful peers.
Root: Dia Logus, “Through Words”
Dialogue is the creative thinking together that can emerge when
respect for all participants, safety, peer relationships,
suspending judgment, sincere inquiry, courageous speech, and discovering and disclosing assumptions
work together to guide our conversations. It is an
activity of curiosity, cooperation, creativity, discovery, and learning rather than persuasion,
competition, fear, and conflict. Dialogue is the only symmetrical
form of communication. Dialogue emerges from
Dialogue is a form of conversation that is distinct from discussion, debate, distraction, dismissal,
delegation, disingenuous, diatribe, and dogma because dialogue is the only form
of communication where the participants act as authentic peers. All
other forms of communication emphasize a
power relationship that interferes with the synthesis,
and interweaving of ideas that characterize dialogue. Dialogue is driven by
genuine curiosity and respect rather than by power.
Deliberation describes a period of thought and reflection that can take place during any
conversation. Rapport is a close synonym to dialogue.
Specific attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can move us toward dialogue or
away from it, toward dichotomy and fragmentation. The following table characterizes
|Authentic curiosity, discovery, and disclosure. Revealing
information, assumptions, and doubts. Done with others. I,
||Disingenuous manipulation, secrecy, and persuasion. Disguising and
defending assumptions and doubts. Maintaining distance through a polite
façade or direct confrontation. Done to others. I, it.
|Cooperation and genuine respect. Peer
relationships; equality. Trust and safety.
Candor. Willing collaborators.
||Competition, criticism, and dismissal. Displaying
Distrust and danger.
|Listening to understand. Empathy.
||Listening to respond and rebut; reloading. Apathy.
|Exploring, examining, innovating. Inquiry.
||Making and scoring points. I win, you lose. Advocacy.
|Choosing to explore; inventing new ideas, creating, learning,
||Choosing to ignore; defending old postures, thoughts, and
|Synthesis, combination, alternative viewpoints, integration,
coherence, new possibilities. Collective intelligence. Building up,
||Polarized, dichotomous thinking. Fragmentation and incoherence.
Focusing on fears. Anxiety. Arrogance. Tearing down, feeling
|Appreciative inquiry. Shared inquiry. Seeking the strengths and
possibilities in the other's ideas. Discernment.
||Criticism. Searching for flaws and weakness in the other's ideas.
|Deferring closure to allow complete understanding, agreement, and
||Closing quickly to solidify your position.
|Identifying faulty reasoning,
information, inconsistencies, or
assumptions. Willing to give up ground.
||Attacking the person. Taking ground.
|Seeking an inclusive viewpoint; valuing and accommodating diversity.
Revealing assumptions and discrepancies.
||Advocating a one-sided point of view;
valuing conformance. Defending a point of view and the assumptions it
|I can learn from you. Inclusiveness. Our doubts help to cleanse our
||I am right, just listen to me. Be reasonable, do it my way.
Resistance is futile.
|Courageous speech. Candor.
||Serial monologue, harangue, attacks, bloviation, obfuscation,
equivocation, posturing, rehashing, gossip, small talk, party line, and
|Balance of advocacy and inquiry.
||Advocacy displaces inquiry.
|Comfortable with complexity and subtlety while seeking elegance.
|Together we can seek the truth. Let's journey together to find it.
||I know the truth. It's my way or the highway.
|Essence; a journey to the center of the being. Curiosity and
||Image. Fear, anxiety,
|Initial doubts leading to enduring certainty.
||Initial certainty leading to enduring doubts.
Balance Inquiry and Advocacy
requires the skillful use of four distinct practices to balance
inquiry—seeking to understand—and advocacy—being understood.
These can achieve the rhythm of respiration, first inhaling the ideas of others
and later exhaling expression of your new ideas. These four skills:
listen, suspend, respect, and voice appear in the diagram on the right and are described more fully below.
Listening to understand: Hear their words; learn their
meaning. What is the person saying? What ideas
do they want to get across? What are they feeling now? What is important to
them? What does this mean for them? What is not being heard? Why?
What is their truth? How can I connect with them? What can I learn from
them? What have I been missing? What are we all missing? How can this new
information change my point of view? Who is not being heard? What are the
inconsistencies, dilemmas, and paradoxes? What new frame of reference can
provide coherence? Concentrate on direct observation, stick to
dismiss your old thoughts and assumptions, stay in their moment, hear their
story, and defer
interpretation. Listen without resistance as you notice your own resistance. Notice
how you are reacting. Be still; stay silent inwardly and outwardly.
Suspending judgment: Defer your certainty while you explore
doubt and new possibilities. Stop, step back, adopt a new point of view, and
reflect from this new vantage point. Frame up—adopt a broader reference frame. Allow inquiry to displace
certainty. Embrace your
ignorance. Be willing to disclose your own doubts.
Acknowledge what you don't know and don't understand. What am I missing? What am I
protecting? Reject polarized thinking. Hold your tongue and defer forming
opinions, jumping to conclusions, quick fixes, and assigning
blame. Become aware of your inner reaction, but don't react outwardly. Have
the discipline to hold the tension within yourself while you silently examine
and reflect on it. Remain curious. Identify and examine your assumptions and theirs. Work to
understand how this problem works, how has it arisen? Cope
constructively with your fears and anger. Do not
attribute motive or
Don't yet agree or disagree while you remain curious and reflect. Defer and
dismiss conclusions, explore alternative meanings and motives, integrate these new ideas
with the whole, and seek congruence.
Respecting all: Attribute positive motives and
constructive intent to each
participant. Appreciate all that is good about them, all that you share in
common with them, and all they can contribute. Acknowledge the
dignity, legitimacy, worth, and
humanity of the person speaking.
Allow for differing viewpoints and learn all you can from them. Examine the
origins within your self of any tendency you have to
disrespect participants. Resist your
temptation to blame. Remain
humble and accept that they can teach us and we can
learn from them. Attain and appreciate their viewpoint; do not
attack, intrude, deny, dismiss, dispute, or discount their comments. Banish
Speaking your voice: Contribute your insight to advance the
dialogue. Be patient and gather your own clear thoughts before you speak with
directly, and authentically. What is most important to express now?
Offer your insights. Share how
you feel, what you don't know, and your own doubts and concerns. Speak
courageously from your own authentic voice. Avoid sarcasm, barbs, attacks,
insults, reification, and
condescension. Inquire and ask only genuine questions
arising out of curiosity and not belligerence. Test
assumptions. Speak in the first person from your actual experiences. Speak your
Dialogue is a dynamic process that requires a delicate balance.
Inquiry—seeking new understanding—combines the skills of listening while
suspending judgment to gain a deeper and newer understanding. This is balanced
by advocacy—seeking to be understood. Advocacy combines
respect for all participants with the courage to speak your voice, share
your insights, and advance the dialogue toward a new understanding of the whole.
Dialogue requires a balance between the analysis of inquiry and the action of
advocacy. Inquiry and analysis alternate in balance with advocacy and action.
The diagram illustrates a spiral path that encourages dialogue to emerge.
Beginning with listening, we then suspend and reflect, respect others, and then
speak our voice before resuming our listening. The dialogue advances the group
toward the whole at the center as the participants think together.
Family therapist David Kantor describes four distinct roles that dialogue
participants adopt dynamically as the dialogue proceeds:
Move: Initiate action to move the dialogue in a particular direction.
Set a direction and provide clarity.
Follow: Support, amplify, or derive a similar direction
suggested by the preceding
Oppose: Raise an objection to highlight possible problems or
point out what may not be quite right
with the current direction.
Bystand: Propose a new way of thinking, a new viewpoint, a new reference
frame, or a new direction that bypasses, transcends, or overcomes the temporary deadlock,
expands the thinking of the group, and shows the way toward further progress.
Provide perspective and encourage reflection.
four roles are required to move the dialogue along. People fill one of the
roles temporarily as the conversation needs each particular type of contribution
to move forward. Each role takes into account the variety of viewpoints already
expressed, incorporating much of the information that has been suspended during
the dialogue. The roles are dynamic, the person who opposed in one instance may
move in another or bystand later on. All four roles are necessary. Without a
move, there is no direction. Without the follow there is no momentum. Without
the opposition, there is no critical thinking and correction, and without the bystanders, deadlocks
persist and there is no breakthrough to new understanding.
Conversation groups that do not achieve dialogue often get stuck in a
move-oppose cycle that repeats without making progress.
The maze shown at the right illustrates how the four roles work together to
move the group toward the shared central understanding; the whole at the center. The move gets thing started and the
follow helps keep things going. However progress seems stalled when it
encounters opposition. After considering all viewpoints, the bystander suggests
a novel path for the group to continue along.
Dialogue is easily spooked. There are many common obstacles that prevent
dialogue from emerging. Removing sources of fear, suspending the exercise of
power, eliminating external influences, removing distractions, and providing
excellent communication conditions can all promote dialogue.
Fear prevents dialogue. People are often afraid to
trust other participants, consider new ideas, and
open up to the new possibilities that dialogue requires. People hold back and
fail to participate fully and genuinely because of their fears. Suspending
judgment is often an act of courage. Remaining open to new ideas; doubting,
questioning, or abandoning beliefs you have held for many years, adopting a new
viewpoint, releasing attachments, hearing someone for the first time, abandoning
the status quo, thinking in a new way, allowing
for change, acknowledging your old habits and beliefs, abandoning your
stubbornness, admitting you don't know or don't understand, admitting you may have been
wrong, exposing vulnerabilities, anticipating the ramifications and future consequences of new ideas
and agreements, becoming authentic rather than merely polite; and confronting
assumptions, issues, and people, can all be scary. These obstacles require
courage to overcome. Speaking truth to power and challenging the opinions and
beliefs of others requires courage. Finding your voice requires courageous
thinking. Speaking your voice requires courageous action. Have the
Dialogue requires autonomy. Speaking your voice requires thinking
for yourself and making your own decisions. Dialogue requires adopting an
internal locus of
control and rejecting an external locus of control. Repeating the opinion of
others, deferring your own judgment to someone outside the room, appealing to
the views of your chosen experts or luminaries, defending a special interest,
holding conflicting interests, running a secret agenda, reciting
dogma, remaining star struck, going along to get along, deferring to fate or luck, or
external constraints such as “my boss
requires . . .” or “everybody knows. . .” all prevent you from making
your own decisions and speaking your
own voice. Shed these external constraints so you can think for yourself,
represent yourself, speak for yourself, and participate in the dialogue. Speak
in the first person about your own experiences and beliefs.
Dialogue requires focus. Multitasking seems to be emerging as the new
status symbol. But dialogue is hard work that requires your full and present attention.
Listening for meaning requires focus and full attention. Suspending judgment
requires self discipline. Speaking your voice requires presence and
thoughtfulness. Respect often requires patience and
cannot be rushed. Reading mail, talking on the
phone, text messaging, surfing the net, side conversations, watching the clock,
preparing for the next meeting, writing notes, showboating, or wishing you were elsewhere are
all distractions that will prevent you from fully participating in dialogue. Your lack
of attention and concern also distracts others and may prevent them from
participating in dialogue. Either focus your full and undivided attention on the
conversation, or leave the room. Expect this focus of the others.
Dialogue requires careful, detailed, delicate, and nuanced communications.
Poor room acoustics, physical distance, language differences, accents, jargon,
local vernacular, unfamiliar vocabulary, cultural differences, unshared
abstractions, logical fallacies,
intentional and unintentional distortions, hearing difficulties, and poor sound systems can all prevent
dialogue from emerging. Collocated participants in a private room free of
distractions sitting comfortably in a circle
where everyone can easily see and hear everyone else promotes communication that
can help dialogue emerge. If language differences exist, then effective translation
services, including cross-cultural translations, are required.
Remove the obstacles described above, assemble and engage the stakeholders,
create the space, increase safety, build trust, level power, defer decision
making, demonstrate empathy, invite the group to do something truly important,
and then stand back. Perhaps an important dialogue can emerge and meaning will
begin to flow.
The power of dialogue has achieved some successful solutions to very
difficult problems. Here are some examples:
- The San Diego
is contributing to the advancement of research, relationships and solutions
to the San Diego-Baja California crossborder region's long-term challenges
in innovation, economy, health and education.
- The National
Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation
works to give people a voice in important issues. Their website documents
many successful dialogue projects.
Café groups are improving conversations and strengthening the
interconnections among people across America.
- “We need to use dialogue to focus on the collective problems of living
together in communities.” ~ Daniel Yankelovich
- “People don't listen, they reload.”
- “Dialogue prepares us to make decisions.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “The unity of contraries is the mystery at the innermost core of
- “Dichotomy begins with a certainty that eventually leads to enduring
doubts while dialogue begins with doubts that eventually lead to enduring
certainty.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “Inquiry and violence cannot coexist.” ~ Peter Garrett
- “The magic of dialogue is that it really does enhance respect and
acceptance of others.” ~ Daniel Yankelovich
- “Eschew Obfuscation.”
- “There is something valid in every position.” ~ Johan Galtung
- “Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.” ~
- “Flattery is no substitute for listening.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “Beware the terrible simplifiers.” ~
- “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or
against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind's worst
The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation,
by Daniel Yankelovich
Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together,
by William Isaacs
by David Bohm, Lee Nichol, Peter Senge
Six Thinking Hats,
by Edward de Bono
How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, & Get What You Want,
by Meryl Runion
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,
by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton
The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes,
by William Ury
Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, by Roger
Fisher, and Daniel Shapiro
Motivational Interviewing, Second Edition: Preparing People for Change,
by William R. Miller, Stephen Rollnick
by Harry G. Frankfurt
Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work,
by Johan Galtung
Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue,
by Maurice S. Friedman
The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly,
by Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, Tom Callanan, and John Ott
Standards of Responsible Communication, published by the Center for