Dialogue Defined

Lately, in scheduled meetings and casual conversations alike, I’ve found myself asking people to define their terms. Often the term is quite common, and we all think we understand it the same way—but then a certain turn of phrase tells me we don’t.

So before we get too far into this “dialogue about dialogue,” perhaps we should define our terms.

In Why Can’t We Talk? I spend a good deal of Chapter 1 wending my way toward a definition of dialogue. Here’s what I have so far:

Dialogue: an intentional, shared exploration of an issue, whose purpose is to deepen mutual understanding if not move closer to the reality of the issue, and whose structure requires participants to lay aside their preconceived notions and participate with a clear mind and a listening heart.

Let’s unpack this a little:

  • Dialogue is intentional. In this sense, it’s not quite the same as conversation. While conversations can dwell on a particular topic for a while, there is no agreed-upon focus and no specific goal in mind. As a result, they can meander from topic to topic. Is that good and healthy for the human spirit? Absolutely. But it’s not dialogue, which has a set purpose, i.e.:
  • Dialogue is a shared exploration. In this sense, it’s also not persuasion, or proselytizing, or anything similar. Unlike those modes of communication, dialogue requires us to assume that we don’t have the answer—and that we can work with our fellow dialogists to get closer to it. However…
  • Dialogue doesn’t always help us move closer to the reality of the issue. It certainly can, of course. But even the dialogues that appear to get us nowhere can hold inestimable value: drawing us into mutual acceptance, clearing away old stereotypes, and even assuaging the loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition.
  • Dialogue requires a clear mind and a listening heart. This is where spirituality plays its indispensable role. By allowing the Divine to shape us through spiritual practices (like regular prayer and meditation), we become more like the Divine: more compassionate, more self-giving, more aware of ultimate reality and our place in it. Our sacred cows and vested interests melt away. Our inner transformation makes us not only larger in spirit, but better able to hear and share in dialogue.

Each of these points, of course, could take up a book in itself. For now, though, let me stop talking and instead listen to you. This is a working definition, and you likely have insights I’ve never considered. Please use the Comments function to share them, or drop me a note with your thoughts.

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  1. Posted September 2, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m intrigued by your distinction between conversation and dialogue. In this light, dialogue seems fairly directed, even controlled. It would seem to need some kind of agenda, ground rules, a commitment of time, etc. (like a meeting). Am I reading too much into this?

    Conversation does meander, but if it involves us listening more than talking, it usually settles in on what’s important to the one we’re listening to. We have no control (if we’re really listening and not manipulating, of course), but the outcome seems the same…understanding, connection, care. The problem is that conversations have been, in the realm of religion and politics anyway, mostly one-way monologues, with one person impatiently waiting for the other person to finish speaking so we can make our much more important point.

  2. Posted September 4, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    That’s a really interesting way to look at conversation. I think you’ve read my distinction correctly: dialogue is more, well, intentional (not formal, though). But conversation is wonderful, of course, and it can easily find its way into dialogue terrain in just the way you said: it meanders into the topics that are really important. Listening and empathy and compassion happen there too. Cool stuff.

  3. budding buddhist
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    First I’d like to express my gratitude for the thought, heart and work that has been shared in this blog. From what I have read thus far, the depth of understanding of both our human condition and some of our ways of shutting each other out of our awareness and our hearts is right on point.

    My own challenge is to notice when I’m beginning to formulate my response to what is being said so that I can stop formulating and return to listening – return to the place of inquiry. Often, I lose that entirely and go straight to my reply. I am finding that to remain in “listening and inquiry” requires much practice and a strong commitment to authentic inquiry and deepening my connection with the speaker and the speaker’s perspective, whether I agree with it or not.

    • Posted January 9, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      That is so well said; thank you for sharing that (and the encouraging words too). “Returning to the place of inquiry” sounds a lot like the practice of returning to the breath or the mantra in meditation, which is so effective–well, sometimes–in dealing with distractions. In this case, the “distraction” is the response one is formulating before the speaker has finished. I’ve never thought of this connection in quite this way, and I appreciate you making it!

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