[The following is an excerpt from a longer paper by Judy Brown, "The Capacity for Dialogue."]
In a sense, dialogue is not complicated. It is just good conversation, over the back fences of our lives. It is continued, thoughtful exchange about the things that most matter. It is a time to sit. In a sense, dialogue is not complicated. It is just good conversation, over the back fences of our homes, a time to get together and talk, as the ideas and thoughts come to us, without agenda. Without time pressures. It is the kind of conversation that we have forgotten in the pace of western, modern life, a kind of easy exchange. It is learning what we have forgotten. Or, in the language of Maya Angelou and Paula Underwood Spencer, from cultures that practiced dialogue, it is reminding us of "that which we have forgotten to remember."
In his seminal book on systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge talks about the important difference between "dialogue," which comes from the Greek dialogos, which means "to draw meaning through," and "discussion," which has the same root meaning as percussion and concussion and which suggests the banging together of ideas and points of view, and, I would add, heads. Senge notes that the dominant mode of communication in the contemporary organization is that of the crashing together of ideas and observations and different understandings, rather than drawing those ideas and observations and different understandings through a process which clarifies and deepens our personal and collective understanding.
But such a deepening of understanding is not automatic. We generally seem to prefer our more familiar model of sparring with ideas. Perhaps it is the nature of our extroverted culture that in any gathering we spend most of our time waiting to race out of the starting gate with our own thinking. A friend of mine often describes extroverts as those who see communication as having only two stages: talking, and waiting to talk. She has not only defined the extrovert, but our extroverted culture as well. In such a competitively extroverted culture, real listening, that is listening to understand or listening as an ally, is indeed counter-cultural.
For most of us, the pattern of dialogue requires new ways of thinking about and evaluating communication. Understood in light of our dominant patterns of debate, disagreement, discussion and decision, dialogue seems like pointless meandering, and is most marked by the deficiency of not "arriving" at any conclusions, of not producing identifiable closure. Dialogue seems to have no structure, no point, and no direction. Even talking about it generates a mild sense of panic, particularly among those who haven't had a chance to settle into it.
If we see the goal of communication as to decide something or do something, we are unable to discern the way in which dialogue, without a seeming focus on decision or action, somehow enables individuals to focus their personal energies almost unconsciously so that once the dialogue has ended people go forth and act in a remarkable level of concert, without the need for action plans or coordination or checking. Such patterns have been noted in the modes of communicating of Asian and Native American cultures.
Dialogue should contribute to the development and deepening of a genuine interest in, curiosity about and concern for the thinking and observations of other people around the table. It is a collective process in which wisdom emerges not from our finding the appropriate path of thinking like the wise one at the head of the table, but where through a dialogue, we come to a deeper understanding than any one of us had to begin with.
We should note that dialogue is a different and often unfamiliar way of being together in communication, and we should acknowledge that and be prepared for it. If we overlook the unfamiliarity of this mode of communicating, we will also make it unlikely that others can evaluate accurately its value-added in our organizational lives. Instead we will mistakenly evaluate it in traditional modes (of decisions taken by meetings' end and measure of closure) and judge it within the time bounds of the meeting, rather than in the longer and more important time frames of future action and alignment.
I am reminded of the many stories of North Americans negotiating with Asians and considering the process of talking and silence without any seeming progress, as pointless and unproductive. The same North Americans have found the level of accord and speed of implementation quite astonishing, in comparison with the level of struggle over implementation in Western cultures. And seldom do they realize the relationship between the slowness of speaking and the ease of acting.
Please send us your comments on this Essay.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal