Dialogue as Social Transformation

Dialogue as Social Transformation

“All real living is meeting.” (Martin Buber)

As social beings, we live in a vast net of different relationships and connections tied to one another. Think about your daily routines and the countless interactions you have with people around you. May it be with family, friends, colleagues, employers, even random people at the grocery store. All of these interactions are shaped to a large extent on the communication we create. This includes not just the content of what we say to each other, but everything in between and outside of it: Gestures, mimicry, tonality, body language, overt and covert feelings, our present mood, our cultural background, the knowledge we’ve acquired, our attitude towards the person/people we’re talking to, the context in which the conversation takes place, and so forth. When we converse, we are constantly deciphering a multitude of cues all at the same time. Communication, therefore, is crucial when it comes to living together.

And because it is such a complex undertaking, communication has this enormous potential to induce change. The change of which I am talking about is social transformation. How can we transform society? What capacities/set of skills do we need to acquire, for this to take place?

Well in short: By coming together and dialogue-ing. I believe it is possible for us to bring forth the changes in society, we so desperately want and need.

By dialogue-ing I mean, practising dialogue. This includes engaging in group communication but most importantly embodying a dialogic attitude towards all kind of communicative interactions we find ourselves in. A dialogic attitude sees every encounter as an opportunity to have a genuine conversation, or as the theologist, Martin Buber called it, a genuine dialogue: “In genuine dialogue, the turning towards the partner takes place in all truth, that is, it is a turning of the being.” Incorporating a dialogic approach on a daily basis is f.ex., actively trying to listen to the other person without judgment, while simultaneously suspending any kind of assumptions we might have towards that person.

Dialogue is based on mutual respect, complete equality and most importantly, trust. It is not merely a polite way to talk to one another. Nor is it a consensus-driven tool to quickly solve a problem or ease the decision-making process. It encourages differences in opinions/assumptions, fully engaging its participants, thus creating a better understanding of a topic, and it often leads to coordinated action. It, therefore, embraces the tension that a diversity of people bring to the table and uses it to the group’s benefit.

To illustrate the power a group of people can have, David Bohm uses the metaphor of the laser:

“Ordinary light is called “incoherent”, which means that it is going in all sorts of directions, and the light waves are not in phase with each other so they don’t build up. But a laser produces a very intense beam which is coherent. The light waves build up strength because they are all going in the same direction.”

In order to become this “laser”-type group, three conditions are necessary: First, the group needs to build, what William Isaacs called, a “container”. The Latin origin of the word includes con and tenere and refers to the meaning of holding together. A dialogue feeds on differences, opposites: intensity – calmness, highs – lows. However for all this to hold together, a group requires to develop trust; not just trust in other people, but also trust towards oneself and the work process. When this is achieved, all kinds of varieties and tensions can arise which ultimately can provide for a fruitful learning environment.

The second condition which is indispensable for a dialogue-group is the presence of a facilitator. The role of the facilitator is, as the name already gives away: to facilitate the process of dialogue. She/He serves mainly as a kind of mirror, in that she/he provides reflection on certain key aspects which can help guide the group into a dialogue. Especially, in the beginning, it is very useful to have someone from the outside in the group to help with the construction of the container. She/He will not only be able to introduce the concept of dialogue to the group, but also assist with various difficulties that emerge especially at the start of a dialogic undertaking: f.ex. distribution of standard roles in a group context (leader-followers f.ex.) or indecisiveness/drifting. Which brings us to the third prerequisite of dialogue: the purpose of the group meeting.

Whenever people come together, they should know the purpose of their gathering. If you have a work-related project, the aim is likely to be already set. However, if you assemble voluntarily, the goal might be a little more complex figuring out. This too can be an area in which the facilitator provides a helpful hand.

Using dialogue as a basis for the standard communication in any group framework is the most efficient, sustainable and humane way to bring about social transformation. It provides an attitude towards communication, which cultivates our innate curiosity about the world and its people, nourishes our collaborative abilities and deepens our understanding about ourselves through others.

Social transformation does not happen overnight. Organizing a meeting/get-together either with neighbours, friends or/and colleagues, and dialogue collectively about one thing you would like to see change. These meetings can be very small, and thus can be the changes at first. However, if the group is meeting regularly, its strength will grow, because its action will become more coherent and the changes will happen on a deeper and more frequent basis.