by Laurie Weiss

Dialogue is a different kind of conversation. It’s a way of exploring and understanding information and ideas. When practiced, it draws on and uses the wisdom of everyone involved.

It is easier to create an argument than it is to create a dialogue. You do this when you have a different opinion than someone else about how to solve a problem, and you act as if there is one correct answer and your task is find it.

As long as you believe that a single correct course of action exists, you debate the issue. You try to convince others that a particular position is correct. Someone wins and someone loses. Even when you believe that this is an outmoded way to solve problems, you continue to use it, because it is comfortable and familiar (Business as usual).

Dialogue, a technology for creating understanding in groups, is different. Dialogue is inclusive instead of exclusive. Dialogue is based upon the belief that there are many ways of approaching any issue, and that no single one is correct.

The aim of Dialogue is to create a forum in which ideas can be explored, expanded, deepened and illuminated until new meaning and understanding emerge. Instead of trying to create support for your own positions, when you engage in Dialogue you listen to and question others, attempting to deepen your understanding of all of the information being presented.

The principles are simple, but not easy to put into practice. The challenge is to listen with care to each statement or question that is offered, and to respond in a way that deepens the investigation of the topic that is being explored.

You may then offer a statement of your own understanding, or ask a question to focus the exploration in a new direction.

When everyone in the group agrees to practice the Dialogue process, learning increases dramatically. However, even if you’re the only one interested in changing the conversation, you can make a good start at it by following these steps.

Being clear is more important than being right.

Instead of trying to prove that your idea or position is correct, your task is to explain your beliefs carefully, so that others can understand them. As others come to understand your position, they may ask questions to clarify their understanding. Or they may also offer observations of their own that will allow you to better understand other aspects of your original ideas.

Eventually a shared understanding is developed from many contributions, and the idea comes to belong to the entire group instead of to any single member of the group.

If it is necessary to make a decision about the issue being addressed, it is done after the exploration is completed. Often such decisions emerge quickly and easily without any need to debate different positions. Everyone present has had the opportunity to be heard and acknowledged and has made a contribution to the outcome. Commitment to such decisions is high (NOT just business as usual).

Exploring different perspectives on the truth instead of arguing about which is correct can best be accomplished in a protected environment. It takes time to practice the skills of listening deeply and asking questions instead of advocating your favorite positions.

Setting aside uninterrupted time to explore issues, without expecting to achieve any particular result, and agreeing to simple rules like allowing each speaker to complete a statement without interruption, are basic conditions necessary to begin the process. Learning to say “I wonder what would happen if…” instead of “I think you should…” is an important part of establishing an environment for Dialogue.

Trained professional facilitators can help you and your group learn how to implement these procedures.