What We Mean by “Dialogue”

Source: Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from the Public Conversations Project, Maggie Herzig and Laura Chasin, Public Conversations Project, 46 Kondazian Street Watertown, MA 02472 , Web: www.publicconversations.org,   Email: info@publicconversations.org  Phone: (617) 923-1216

What dialogue is

The dialogues that PCP designs and facilitates are conversations in which the participants’ primary goal is to pursue mutual understanding rather than agreement or immediate solutions. As participants pursue this goal, they sometimes decide to pursue other goals. For example, dialogue groups sometimes decide to become better informed together or to build consensus about ways that they can act on shared values.

What dialogue is not

Dialogue is distinct from debate; in fact, participants in dialogue often explicitly agree to set aside persuasion and debate so that they can focus on mutual understanding. Dialogue is also different from mediation, conflict resolution, and problem solving although it may serve as a prelude to or aspect of such processes.

What participants do

  • They listen and are listened to with care.
  • They speak and are spoken to in a respectful manner.
  • They share airtime so that all speakers can be heard.
  • They learn about the perspectives of others.
  • They reflect on their own views.

What participants gain

  • Mutual understanding, which may stimulate new ideas for learning and action
  • Communication skills that can be used in other difficult conversations

What it takes

Dialogue is present any time people genuinely seek mutual understanding, setting aside for that time the urge to persuade or the pressure to decide. It can occur spontaneously, among friends, in classrooms, in organizations, or even among strangers. When people are experiencing polarized conflict, however, we have found that it is helpful if they

  • have clarity and consensus about the purposes of the conversation.
  • make communication agreements that will help them to achieve their purposes.
  • have a facilitator whose sole responsibility is to help the participants honor their agreements and reach their shared purposes.

Permission to photocopy. ©2006 Public Conversations Project. www.publicconversations.org.