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Dialogue Every Day, Dialogue Everywhere

Dialogue professionals think of dialogue as a process, and to a large extent they’re right. Process plays a big role in bringing people together and helping them reach across divides.

Still, I tend to define dialogue more broadly. Besides the scheduled conversations and formal meetings, dialogue is something that can happen anytime, anywhere, even without warning—a spontaneous event and a response from the heart.

Earlier this week I wrote something for a CEO. I knew I hadn’t nailed it: his ideas were all there, but his voice didn’t come through as it should—even though the text was nearly verbatim from my last interview with him. I was at a dead end, so I sent it to my contact at the CEO’s company for her feedback.

She saw the problem too, and responded with input that I never would have come up with. Her specific edits may or may not make the final piece, but in some ways it doesn’t matter (just as it doesn’t matter whether my bon mots make the cut). More important, her insights sparked a new point of view that helped me get back on track.

To make the final text the best it could be, I needed her.

That, to me, is dialogue, just as much as processes like Open Space or World Café or Appreciative Inquiry. The give-and-take lifted me out of my own one-person’s perspective—one perspective among billions—and helped me see things in a different light. 

And this is why I believe dialogue as a habit of the heart is so essential. If we cultivate the inner attitudes that facilitate dialogue—openness, humility, a passion for truth seeking, a willingness to risk—we will be ready for these chance encounters. We will naturally respond with an open spirit and a listening ear, no matter what comes our way.

This is even more important when it comes to our adversaries, because they set off the automatic fight-or-flight response within us. As we cultivate “the spirit of dialogue” within ourselves, we will notice that response replaced with something else: curiosity. “How dare you believe that?” is replaced with “How did you come to that?” “I don’t want to discuss it” yields to “Tell me your thinking.”

When was the last time you experienced everyday dialogue like this? What did you learn? How did it make you feel? Feel free to share your thoughts.

2 Responses to “Dialogue Every Day, Dialogue Everywhere”

  • Bob Stains says:

    John,
    Thanks for these reflections. My first response is curiosity: Why did this encounter touch you so much? What was it about the exchange that left you feeling that it was “dialogic”? What was happening there that maybe doesn’t show up in other kinds of conversation? What wasn’t happening that might have gotten in the way?

    I distinguish (as you do) between “dialogue” as a discreet process and living a dialogic life: striving to attain and maintain a “dialogic mindset”, “dialogic spirit”, or “dialogic stance”.

    Because dialogue can mean so many things, I think it’s helpful when talking about the process -especially for practitioners- to define one’s own understanding and approach to dialogue, as you have done. Our approach at the Public Conversations Project, for instance, is “a structured conversation guided by mutual agreements with a goal of mutual understanding.” Significantly different in purpose and process than, say, a Bohmian approach that might be looking to remove barriers so that common ground emerges and collective intelligence is harnessed. Our processes differ to follow our distinct purposes.

    I often think that living a dialogic life is akin to a spiritual practice: to really connect and get the most out of it you have to always have it in mind and you have to practice it every day. And we never reach perfection; we’re always on the road. Especially me, when I think of all the times I yelled at my kids when they were younger and how difficult it is to not always take “the expert stance” with them now that they are young adults.

    So I’m asking myself now, “What do you mean, a “dialogic life”? If someone stopped me on the street and said this I would roll my eyes very far up into my head. And yet when I reach for a rational, well-thought explanation, the right words don’t come. I know it in my bones and in my heart more than in my brain. I guess it’s a quality of interaction characterized by genuine curiosity about another, reciprocity and conversational collaboration, transparency, according respect and listening deeply. Responding with inquiry rather than defense and attack when confronted with a “feared other”. Avoiding stereotyping and stigmatizing. I could go on, but it’s starting to sound like the Boy Scout Oath.

    You asked for an example. I had one on Wednesday, in a cab in DC on the way to Dulles. My driver, an Iranian guy named Nasser, tossed off a comment at the beginning of the ride about “the stories I could tell” about what’s gone on in the cab. Choicepoint: I’m beat after a long day. Do I say “mm Hmm” or do I ask? This time, I asked. It was clear he really wanted to tell me. “What are some of the stories? What have you seen?” I was expecting tales of drunkenness, etc. But what I got was a series of gifts. Stories of generosity and kindness that lifted my spirit. Hurtling down the highway, I listened to a story of how Nasser gave his Obama inauguration tickets to a man who’d come from Alabama to see the event on his birthday but could only get as close as a hotel room along the parade route. As he told me about the man’s tears of joy, he began to weep. Tears rolled down the cheeks of this big, burly man as he spoke of the privilege of seeing someone else’s joy.

    Here was a shining example of a dialogic soul: he listened deeply to a stranger; he understood and empathized with him; he met him where his desire was; he gave of himself.

    I want to be like Nasser when I grow up.

  • John Backman says:

    So do I, Bob. Nasser sounds like a wonderful example of an open heart.

    I think you’ve expressed the contents of a “dialogic life” very well. The only thing I’d add is a sort of dialogic mindfulness: the “being here now” required to detect those golden Nasser opportunities when they arise. The opportunity comes up, you recognize it as such, and the habits of the heart you’ve cultivated to live this dialogic life kick in.

    I suspect this kind of mindfulness is what triggered me into recognizing, and writing about, the specific situation I mentioned in the post. The difference here is that, at the time, I didn’t think of it as a form of dialogue; it was only afterward that I saw the connection. Skeptics might accuse me of seeing dialogue under every rock, and they may be right in some cases. But I do think the idea of dialogue–maybe the spirit of dialogue–applies here.

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