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The Process of Dialogue

August 19th, 2016

Reprinted with permission from “Correctional Oasis”, Volume 13, Issue 7.

A prior version of this article was published in the September 2008 issue of the Correctional Oasis.

Dialogue (dī′ə lôg′, -läg′)
1. a talking together; conversation
2. interchange and discussion of ideas, especially when open and frank, as in seeking mutual understanding or harmony
From Yourdictionary.com

I heard once that we have one mouth but two ears because we need to listen twice as much as we speak. The need for careful and strategic listening is always in order. However, it is probably never greater than when we find ourselves in disagreement with others—holding contrasting viewpoints—whether in our professional lives or in our private dealings.

Interacting with others includes experiencing friction with them at times, with “iron sharpening iron.” Whether it is administrators negotiating with unions, supervisors confronting sub-ordinates, parents clashing with teen children, or spouses disagreeing, conflict happens.

When we experience a disagreement, our first urge is to try to convince the other party that our way of thinking is the right one, and so have our views and preferences prevail—and thus “win” the argument.

Conflict resolution experts suggest, however, that, when at an impasse with others, we need to dialogue with them if we want to enjoy possible mutually satisfactory resolutions, and to preserve relationships.

One goal of dialoguing is to look for common ground with people with whom we disagree. That is why the essence of successful dialogue is exploratory in nature. It aims to help both parties identify and clarify complexities and nuances about their positions.

If arguing to win resembles a fierce game of tennis, dialoguing looks like deep-sea diving with the other party in each other’s territory with the goal of bringing discovered treasures to the surface from BOTH parties’ territory.

Effective dialoguing requires approaching each other with the goal to better understand each other’s history, needs, interests, context and foundational assumptions. Dialoguing also seeks to identify what is acceptable, valuable and meaningful to each party. This takes having a vested interest in long-term outcomes, not just short-lived victories.

Dialoguing presumes that all parties involved hold pieces of the puzzle, that they all have validity in their perspective.

Through dialoguing all parties involved have the opportunity to recognize the value of each other’s stance, and to acknowledge that the other party’s contributions can advance and enrich everyone’s thinking. This takes objectivity, generosity of spirit, and a realistic self-assessment.

While engaging in dialogue all parties are expected to present their positions, while at the same time remaining willing to reevaluate them in light of additional evidence. This takes integrity, courage and flexibility.

Dialoguing is built upon respect of the other party, humility to accept that we don’t have all the answers, self-control and patience with the process of discovery and discussion, and the desire to maintain a working relationship with those with whom we are dialoguing.

Ultimately, dialogue conducted effectively can help all parties come up with creative new possibilities to address their disagreements. For example, instead of verbally attacking someone over their doing something in a certain way, dialoguing entails both parties presenting their positions. Topics to be covered include the reasons for one party’s dis-pleasure with the other party’s actions; alternatives that the objecting party is proposing instead; the other party’s reasons for doing things in their particular way; areas that would be impacted by change and also by lack of change of how things are done; and possible ways to combine elements of the two approaches (if feasible) in order to ad-dress both parties’ agendas and needs more effectively.

Of course all this takes maturity of character, time, and effort. Dialoguing is hard work. Engaging in it challenges our very human urge to cut to the chase, and “win” the argument by wrapping the discussion up, and settling matters our way. When we look at the toll of broken relationships and divided teams, however, it becomes apparent that investing in dialogue is well worth it. In fact, we cannot afford not to dialogue with both colleagues and our loved ones.

Suggested reading:
Isaacs, William. (1999). Dialogue and the Art of Think-ing Together. New York, New York: Currency Double-day.

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