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Dialogue is a form of conversation and a form of relating to people that differs from mediation, negotiation, and debate in that it seeks to inform and learn, but not persuade or resolve anything. This approach is often more successful in deep-rooted, value based conflicts where negotiation is impossible. Progress in such situations requires the breakdown of stereotypes, a willingness to listen and respect others' views, and a willingness to open oneself to new ideas. Dialogue allows this to happen, often before people are willing to sit down to discuss "resolution," "consensus," or areas of "common ground."

While dialogue has been in use in conflict situations (by the Quakers, for instance) for decades, it has become increasingly common in non-religious settings over the last ten years. The Public Conversations Project, one of the leaders in applying dialogue to public debates, describes dialogue as a conversation in which people "speak openly and listen respectfully and attentively. Dialogue excludes attack and defense and avoids derogatory attributions based on assumptions about the motives, meanings, or character of others. In dialogue, questions are sincere, stimulated by curiosity and interest. Answers often disclose what previously has been unspoken." (Chasin et al, 1996, p. 325.)

This can be contrasted with debate, which often becomes repetitive, entrenched, and rhetorical. Rather than opening people up to new ideas, debate tends to close them down--they get an "I already heard this a thousand times" attitude, and they just talk louder and argue harder about their own views, rather than being receptive to others'. The following table, taken from "From Diatribe to Dialogue on Divisive Public Issues: Approaches Drawn from Family Therapy," (Mediation Quarterly, Summer 1996) compares dialogue to debate, highlighting the key differences in each of several categories.

Distinguishing Destructive Debate from Dialogue

Destructive Debate Dialogue
Pre-meeting communication between sponsors and participants is minimal and largely irrelevant to what follows. Pre-meeting contacts and preparation of participants are essential elements of the full process.
Participants tend to be leaders known for propounding a carefully crafted position. The personas displayed in the debate are usually already familiar to the public. The behavior of the participants tends to conform to stereotypes. Those chosen to participate are not necessarily outspoken leaders. Whoever they are, they speak as individuals whose own unique experiences differ in some respect from others on their side. Their behavior is likely to vary in some degree and along some dimensions from stereotypical images others may hold of them.
The atmosphere is threatening; attacks and interruptions are expected by participants and are usually permitted by moderators. The atmosphere is one of safety; facilitators propose, get agreement on, and enforce clear ground rules to enhance safety and promote respectful exchange.
Participants speak as representatives of groups. Participants speak as individuals, from their own unique experience.
Participants speak to their own constituents and, perhaps, to the undecided middle. Participants speak to one another.
Differences within "sides" are denied or minimized. Differences among participants on the same side are revealed, as individual and personal foundations of beliefs and values are explored.
Participants express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach, or idea. Participants express uncertainties, as well as deeply held believes.
Participants listen in order to refute the other side's data and to expose faulty logic in their arguments. Questions are asked from a position of certainty. These questions are often rhetorical challenges or disguised statements. Participants listen to understand and gain insight into the beliefs and concerns of the others. Questions are asked from a position of curiosity.
Statements are predictable and offer little new information. New information surfaces.
Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.
Debates operate within the constraints of the dominant public discourse. (The discourse defines the problem and the options for resolution. It assumes that fundamental needs and values are already clearly understood.) Participants are encouraged to question the dominant public discourse, that is, to express fundamental needs that may or may not be reflected in the discourse and to explore various options for problem definition and resolution. Participants may discover inadequacies in the usual language and concepts used in the public debate.

Table from Richard Chasin, Margaret Herzig, Sallyann Roth, Laura Chasin, Carol Becker, and Robert R. Stains, Jr. "From Diatribe to Dialogue on Divisive Public Issues: Approaches Drawn from Family Therapy". Mediation Quarterly 1996, v. 13 #4, p. 326.

Key elements of the PCP approach to dialogue are collaborating with participants, preventing re-enactment of the "old" ways of communicating and relating with the other side, and fostering a new way of communicating by imposing a strict (though negotiated) set of ground rules and a preformulated structure. Unlike transformative mediation, where the mediator "follows the parties around," the facilitators of dialogue definitely do the leading--by asking very carefully formulated questions which are answered in a predefined order. However, dialogue facilitators do not look for or highlight areas of common ground, nor do they push parties towards settlement. Rather, they structure the session in a way that encourages mutual recognition. In so doing, they are also likely to generate empowerment, though that is not a pre-defined goal as it is in transformative mediation. Nevertheless, the results of dialogue are usually extremely transformative, as people emerge from the process with a much deeper understanding of both their own views and the views of people on the other side. While this does not necessarily lead to settlement--in fact it seldom does in the protracted, deep-rooted public policy conflicts that the PCP generally deals with--it does initiate a new way of dealing with these conflicts that have the potential, over the long term, for transforming the public debate, not just the private dialogues of the immediate participants.

[Click here] for a summary of "From Diatribe to Dialogue on Divisive Public Issues: Approaches Drawn from Family Therapy," (Mediation Quarterly, Summer 1996)

[Click Here] for a full text paper describing the PCP's dialogue process.

[Click Here] for Additional Readings

For More Information: Contact: Guy Burgess or Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Campus Box 327, Boulder, Colorado, 80309-0327, E-mail: burgess@colorado.edu Phone: (303) 492-1635; Fax: (303)492-2154.

Copyright 1997 by Conflict Research Consortium