Dialog for Change

The Basics of Dialog

The objectives of dialog are first to reach a common understanding of a situation by all the stakeholders involved; then try to develop a shared plan of action. Everyone agreeing on every detail is impossible. Success is the absence of gridlocking disagreement.

Rules for dialog may be very basic, or as advanced as Structured Dialogic Design. The rules listed below are not the simplest or the most complex, but in facilitating dialog is an art learned by practice more than rules followed to the letter.

  • Listen to learn, to understand others even if you vehemently disagree with them. Concentrate on what others are saying without thinking about how to rebut them. Dialog is not a debate.
  • Prepare before speaking yourself.
    • Present facts as you know them. Cite sources.
    • State any major assumptions you are making — if you are aware of them.
  • Everybody should speak on the first round. Everybody has a time limit, so no speaker can dominate.
  • Don’t argue, point fingers, drift into irrelevant stories, etc. If this starts, anyone in the group can voice a code phrase, like “foul,” “below the belt,” or whatever the group selects beforehand.
  • Keep a record of what happened and decisions made. Don’t leave until everyone knows what to do – or what to prepare for the next meeting.

If dialog is carefully practiced, it develops mutual understanding, if not agreement. This may take some time. Participants continuing to meet signals that their minds are open. Shifts in deep beliefs become possible.

None of us can articulate every assumption that we make. Like fish in water, we are unaware that we are in it until we are out of it. Shifting of deep beliefs comes through personal introspection between meetings. We can do on this on our own, or a skilled facilitator can counsel individuals between meetings.

Successful dialog helps all participants realize that a problem situation in total is not what any of them thought it was when they began. This is sometimes called the wisdom of the group. With a common understanding among them, they may work toward resolutions more satisfactory to all.

When a situation is serious, identifying and including all the stakeholders relevant to the situation may the earliest concern of the dialog. And following Compression Thinking, one or more participants should speak up for the ecology. Although mute, it too is always a stakeholder.