Dialogue is a different kind of conversation. It is a way of exploring and understanding information and ideas. When practiced, it builds on and uses the wisdom of everyone involved.
It is easier to create an argument than 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 a correct answer and your task is to find it.
As long as you believe there is only one correct course of action, you debate the issue. Try to convince others that a particular position is correct. Someone wins and someone loses. Even when you think this is an old-fashioned way of solving problems, you continue to use it because it’s comfortable and familiar (Business as usual).
Dialogue, a technology for building understanding in groups, is different. Dialogue is inclusive rather than exclusive. Dialogue is based on the belief that there are many ways to approach any issue and that none is correct.
Dialogue’s goal is to create a forum where ideas can be explored, expanded, deepened and illuminated until new meaning and understanding emerge. Instead of trying to build support for your own positions, when you participate in the Dialogue, you listen and question others, trying to deepen your understanding of all the information that is presented.
The principles are simple, but not easy to put into practice. The challenge is to listen carefully to each statement or question that is offered, and to respond in a way that furthers the investigation of the topic being explored.
You can 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 get off to a good start 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 carefully explain your beliefs so that others can understand them. As others understand your position, they may ask questions to clarify their understanding. Or they can also offer their own observations that will allow you to better understand other aspects of their original ideas.
Eventually, a shared understanding develops from many contributions, and the idea becomes owned by the whole group rather than just one group member.
If a decision needs to be made about the issue being discussed, it is made after the scan is complete. Such decisions often come quickly and easily without the need to debate different positions. All those present have had the opportunity to be heard and recognized and have contributed to the result. Commitment to such decisions is high (NOT just business as usual).
Exploring different perspectives on the truth rather than arguing about which one is correct can best be achieved in a protected environment. It takes time to practice the skills of listening deeply and asking questions instead of defending your favorite positions.
Setting aside uninterrupted time to explore issues, without expecting to achieve any particular result, and accepting simple rules such as allowing each speaker to complete a statement without interruption, are necessary basic conditions to begin the process. Learning to say “I wonder what if…” instead of “I think you should…” is an important part of setting the mood for Dialogue.
Trained professional facilitators can help you and your group learn how to implement these procedures.