I am teaching a course on generative and strategic dialogue this term and, through the amazing dialogue with my students, I am reminded of the importance and challenge of this communicative practice.
Dialogue asks us to become more aware and intentional about how we listen, think, and speak. In his 1999 book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Issacs describes dialogue as “a living experience of inquiry within and between people.” When we consider the importance of creating a bridge between the very diverse perspectives among people, dialogue offers the possibility of broadening our horizons of understanding and enabling us to collectively decide how to live and work together, locally and globally.
Dialogue is an important communicative practice to develop and sustain a civil society. In dialogue, people are asked to put their personal opinions and agendas aside, listen to diverse perspectives, seek to understand them, and notice the different assumptions that underlie those perspectives. As we become aware of our own assumptions and those of others, we have the capacity to examine and challenge those assumptions. It is through a respectful process of considering and challenging assumptions that we are able to shift our thinking and come to understand something in a new way. This can lead us to finding common ground and creating a path forward founded on the shared values that underlie different perspectives and approaches.
If dialogue were practiced in our governmental bodies, consider how much progress we might make in bringing change to the nation or the world. In the U.S., the political differences in Congress create a battleground that seriously impedes our economic recovery. Around the world, we see nations destroyed and people dying as they fight to have their needs and perspectives considered. We continue to live under the threat of nuclear war and yet one would think that as a human species we should have the ability to resolve differences long before we move to destroying each other.
Ask anyone in an organization what is the root of most problems and the response will likely be communication. I believe it remains such a major human challenge because of the way we think about communication as a tool that we use to get our point across. People are admired for their skills in debate and persuasion. Leaders are seen as great communicators if they can influence others. Rarely are people admired or acknowledged for being great listeners and people who change their minds. How often do we hear that politicians who change their positions lack integrity? That may be true if they are changing their position only to please their constituencies or get reelected. However, if they change their thinking and positions because they have listened to others and determined that what is needed is different from what they previously thought, shouldn’t we admire them? Isn’t representation intended to be about bringing people together, creating an opportunity for different voices to be heard, listening to those voices, and collectively deciding what is best for the whole?
Changing one’s mind as a result of understanding or learning something new is a good thing. I love to hear my students and other colleagues tell me how they came to understand something differently and the new opportunities that created in their lives. Changing one’s mind can be transformative. We can see the world anew and open up new possibilities that were previously unimaginable.
Dialogue is a practice that can build our capacity to think anew. When it is engaged by a group of people who are willing to explore their differences and seek to challenge prevailing assumptions it can enable us to create the change needed in many parts of our world. As we face the uncertainty of climate change and its long-term effects on our world as we know it, dialogue that supports new thinking and transformative change will likely become our best hope for creating a future that will support the needs of generations to come.
If you are interested in learning more about the purpose of dialogue, check out one of the last interviews with the late David Bohm, a quantum physicist who dedicated much of his life to understanding human thought and communication and promoting dialogue.