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What is dialogue?

We define dialogue as an invitation for teams and individuals to talk with (not at) each other.

This definition is grounded in the writing of thinkers such as David Bohm, who describes dialogue as “a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us”1, and William Isaacs, who offers a beautiful turn of phrase to describe what we mean by dialogue2 – that is the notion of holding “a conversation with the centre, not the sides”. The focus is on what is co-created and mutual, rather than that which is separate or fractious.

Firstly, in defining dialogue, it’s useful to highlight the difference in origins of the words ‘dialogue’ and ‘discussion’. Bohm draws a deeper understanding of the word ‘discussion’ as he explains its common roots with ‘concussion’ and ‘percussion’. How many times do we find conversations as he described as though they were ping-pong matches, where the ball (the issue or topic) is batted back and forwards from opposing sides?

In essence, what we mean by dialogue is not what we experience or could take to mean from the word ‘discussion’.

Neither is dialogue debate – during which people argue their case and score conversational, moral or intellectual points off each other. Nor is it conversation: enjoyable interactions that may be without purpose.

Dialogue is not negotiation – which is more about reaching compromise, or gaining advantage – though it is often an important part of any negotiation process.

Dialogue is an experienced phenomena in which people speak out their dissent, their disquiet or their delight, typically in a group setting – this leads to a richer understanding of the issue, more consideration in the process of reaching a decision, but ultimately produces quality outcomes that people are attached to.

How do you use dialogue?

Dialogue doesn’t ‘just happen’, but there are some key components to ensuring good quality, challenging conversations occur. In this article, our aim is to help you understand the practical foundations so that you can practice dialogue.

In many ways dialogue is an art – its potential and, indeed, beauty develops with time and practice. Here are some key points to ensure you have the right studio and materials to make conversational masterpieces:

  • build a container for conversation
  • understand intent vs impact
  • balance advocacy and inquiry
  • understand the context.