What is dialogue?

What is dialogue?

You have probably come across this term more than once. Usually, it gets used to describe at least two people talking to each other, exchanging opinions, information and so on. However, dialogue is far more than that; its roots are deeply woven into the fabric of humanity itself.

“Dialogue” comes from the Greek word dialogos: logos means “word” and dia means “through”. From this, we can picture a type of communication which allows us to directly connect to each other by creating new thought content and providing a fertile ground for group consultation.

The way dialogue is practiced today, is largely due to the physicist David Bohm. His notion of dialogue was the result of many influences and collaborations: the writings of the theologist Martin Buber and the psychiatrist Patrick de Maré but also Bohm’s friendship with the pedagogue Jiddu Krishnamurti.

How does it work?

Dialogue is a form of communication which requires its participants to trust each other and feel safe around one another. Sounds easier than it actually is. In order for this to happen, practice is key and the building of a safe and trusted space: a “container”. Together with a facilitator, each group builds its very own unique “container” by using the same guidelines:

Sitting in a circle, using a talking symbol, having a check-in round and actively embodying at least 4 of the established dialogical principles (respect, deep listening, suspension and articulation). These principles have been developed by different people including William Isaacs (Organisational Theory), L. Freeman Dhority (Education and Group Dynamics) and Martina and Johannes Hartkemeyer (Pedagogy).

It all sounds pretty straightforward but it takes time building this type of communication, be it with your family, a work-group or even amongst friends. In its essence, dialogue is a slow-moving type of conversation, which for example sets it apart from a fast pacing discussion.

Over time, it provides a deeper understanding of how our thinking works and how it shapes the things and relationships around us. Moreover, dialogue enables inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that fragment and interfere with real communication between individuals, groups and even nations.

Why is dialogue important today?

Simply put: because it consciously connects people to each other, their environment and their current situation.

In 2015 the Nobel Prize of Peace was given to the Dialogue-Quartet in Tunisia. The country found itself on the brink of a civil war, with political murders, hostilities between national groups, which wanted the resignation of the government. However, the situation was diffused when Tunisian unions (the federation of trade unions, the Federation of employers, the Tunisian league for human rights and the Chamber of Lawyers) got together and organised a dialogue between the government parties and the opposition, and established a national protectorate under their supervision.

We live in an age of increasing interdependence. Simultaneously our cultural and social structures were built in and for a previous age, where the importance was laid on independence; from ego-centrism and competitiveness to nation-states and national interests, these represent just some of the results. The society and culture we live in today are changing rapidly, however. We have become increasingly aware that we rely on each other on this planet, from individuals to nations. Yet we lack the knowledge and the right tools to act, work, organize and live accordingly.

Dialogue is one possible way to help us achieve this. In a world of interdependence, it is vital that we learn to collaborate, cooperate and consult with each other.