What is dialogue?

Posted on October 25, 2010 by


The current “talk culture” in the media has diminished our civic discourse. I heard Diana Gale (a professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs and consultant to the King County change effort) comment at the plenary of the ADR Program’s Negotiations Conference last week that the political polarization in this country is really getting to her. I agree.

Instead of engaging us with intelligent and thoughtful analysis of the problems we face and challenging us to consider new and innovative solutions, we are exposed to name calling and belittling diatribes.  From each of the extremes we hear simple and one dimensional assassinations of character and ideas. We need now is a conversational structure that allows us to explore the complexity of the questions we face.

I was struck by the Comment Policy of this blog “Comments that do not help foster a dialog amongst employees” could be screened.

This begs the question, what is dialogue?  Dialogue is a tool we can use to elevate the discourse and support thoughtful deliberation.  Dialogue is not for wimps.  On the contrary, it invites fearless exploration of strongly held beliefs – your own as well as the others.  Dialogue invites you to share your beliefs and to be transparent about the experiences and thinking that informs them.  Dialogue, as contrasted with debate,  invites you to inquire deeply about the beliefs of others – especially those with whom you strongly disagree.

Several years ago I was involved in a project called “Animating Democracy,” a nation-wide initiative intended to promote civic dialogue on highly polarized issues.  I was the dialogue consultant for a project in Anchorage that brought people from the gay community and the religious and socially conservative community together for a conversation about same-sex marriage.  It took real courage from people on both sides of the issue to come to the table and really listen to each other.  Here are some of the hallmarks of dialogue  that allowed people to speak and listen:

  • There was no expectation that anyone would change their mind.  The sole purpose was to deepen understanding and elevate the discourse.
  • People spoke from personal experience rather than from positions.  They set aside sacred texts – including scripture and the Constitution – and spoke from the heart.
  • People considered and were able to talk about times when they doubted their beliefs.  An example was an uncle who, because of religious belief, disavowed his favorite gay nephew and became estranged from his beloved sister.  We all have internal dilemmas that take real courage to examine and share.
  • People were able to move from moral judgment and indignation to a place of genuine curiosity.  “What is it like for you?”  “What led you to your belief?”   The questions required both the questioner and the answerer to ponder a wider range of possibility.

Did people change their minds? No. Did people leave the dialogue with better understanding of each other and better thinking about the question of same-sex marriage?  Were they able to see each other as humans rather than some sort of monolithic and demonic “other”? They said yes.

As County employees we face huge problems that we need to solve together.  We need all of our voices. We need to listen to our citizens, even those with whom we disagree. We need to add our voices, listen to each other and face the complexity of the problems at hand. Let’s elevate the discourse.

Written by Ann McBroom, King County Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, Assistant Manager and Mediator. Ann has been a public sector conflict resolution professional in Washington State since 1989, working for and as a consultant to non-profits and government.  In 1996 Ann was hired by the City of Bellevue to design and manage a full service mediation program serving the citizens of Bellevue. She joined the King County Alternative Dispute Resolution Program as Assistant Manager and Mediator in 2002, and specializes in highly conflict situations within and between work groups.