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Very simply, dialogue may be defined as conversation that generates greater understanding. However, dialogue-based processes have been developed far beyond that simple formulation. Dialogue as conceived by the late physicist David Bohm can be considered a vital process of ethical governance and politics:

"...it may turn out that such a form of free exchange of ideas and information is of fundamental relevance for transforming culture and freeing it of destructive misinformation, so that creativity can be liberated." [1]

Dialogue at its best supports deliberations that yield profound understanding of issues, including thorough inquiry into all positions of a conflict. The dialogue process itself resists expectations or goals for conflict resolution, and as such a focus on outcome often obstructs the depth of process necessary for true understanding, precisely the understanding that is necessary to gain real resolution or transformation. Dialogue theory presumes that conflict arises naturally from our limitations as incarnate beings, with unique backgrounds and experiences, none of whom possess individually, or even as groups, access to all knowledge. The theory also views conflict as an opportunity for individuals and disparate groups to enlarge their understanding of both self and other, expand their limitations, and thin the boundaries that define their sense of separateness.

Likely, the ability to engage in dialogue is an evolved human capacity that predates civilization and the establishment of hierarchy. Certainly many indigenous cultures had, and some retain, deliberative processes that indicate dialogue as a key aspect. However most non-indigenous schooling and cultural conditioning stifles that ability, and rewards competitive argument and debate over understanding and collaboration.

Barriers to dialogue

Absent in most political deliberations is the willingness and ability to identify, and then to suspend or release attachment to, assumptions or core beliefs. Also largely absent is the ability to listen in profound ways, especially in the face of conflict, in order to explore thoroughly the truths contained in different beliefs, experiences and values. We are well schooled in debate and argument but not in investigation into the nature of our thinking processes, or in skills that tap collective wisdom. It is rare for leaders in any arena, except in a handful of cutting edge businesses, to take the time, or to have the peers or governing body willing, to engage in such rigorous and revelatory conversation that requires the ability to notice and “hold,” rather than react to, the inevitable tension that arises when individuals and groups encounter conflict.

William Isaacs, a scholar and consultant who has devoted much of his professional career to the study and training of dialogue, suggests that dialogue could transform the nature of our social and political structures. The power in dialogue that leads to transformation is rooted in the willingness to truly let go of defending one’s own position in order to engage in profound inquiry. Had the leaders attending the first Kyoto summit on climate change been willing, there could have been inquiry into the deep assumptions that drive climate change: The value of economic growth, the impact of global capitalism, the spreading tide of rapacious consumerism, and most critically, our underlying mental models of the environment. (Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, p. 25)

The incorporation of such inquiry and deep reflection as dialogue practice entails might evolve political and social structures that would ethically assess and creatively address our collective predicaments.



Authors: Tim Bennett & Sally Erickson