Dialogue: What does it mean?

The word ‘dialogue’ comes from the Greek word dialogos, literally meaning “through word” (dia= through and logos=word). Through dialogue, more than just new ideas can emerge. It is a complex concept in real sense. Logos can also carry a deeper meaning; however, to some ‘logos’ has a more spiritual connotation. This deeper meaning in the root of dialogue could be conceptualized as “the spirit of the group” or an esprit de corps. The emergence of this shared spirit and identity also creates a shared intelligence or “co-intelligence.”  Many experts of the field called it demosphia — literally, “wisdom of the people.”


William Isaac calls dialogue “a conversation with a center instead of sides.” Dialogue is an exchange of ideas, or opinions on a particular issue especially political or religious issue with a view to reach an amicable agreement or settlement -dictionary.com.  Harrision Owen defines it as people truly listening to people truly speaking. Dialogue is speeches between two (or more) people – Urbandcitionary.com. An enemy is one whose story we have not heard-Gener Hoffman.  Dialogue is focused conversation, engaged in intentionally with the goal of increasing understanding, addressing problems, and questioning thoughts or actions. It engages the heart as well as the mind. It is different from ordinary, everyday conversation, in that dialogue has a specific focus and a purpose, Bakhtin (1990).


Dialogue matters with needs and interests relates to policy dialogue, which is defined as organised deliberation between two or more actors on the allocation of public values, which is likely to result in new policies or modification of existing ones. Levin (1997) when politicians or officials refer to policy they are referring to a policy in a number of ways: ‘a stated intention to take a particular action’, ‘an organizational practice’ or as some other form of activity/intention. Not only a dialogue is limited to the political or religious issues, it is rather a broader aspect linked to other issues that affect people’s life.


Implicit in the concept of dialogue is a need for clarification of issues and understanding of the interests and concerns of contending parties. A dialogue also presupposes readiness on the part of actors to accept a minimum level of compromise and accommodation, as well as some degree of relative autonomy for all actors. By seeking to avoid confrontations and unilaterally defined outcomes, policy dialogues can be very time consuming and may produce results that may not fully satisfy the wishes of participants.


The goal of dialogue is a shared creation of new meanings and ideas. This happens by including common understanding and combining it in such a way that new, richer, deeper meaning and more creative ideas are generated in a group through synergy.


The case in point is that, when groups work together to create understanding or solutions in a more collaborative way; using dialogues: new ideas, new insights and new knowledge are created. There is much written these days about “co-intelligence” and the processes that enable groups to capitalize on their capacity to generate new learning and knowledge together.


Ground Rules for Dialogue:


Once a group has gathered, the first collective task of any dialogue effort is to create a set of “ground rules” that everyone agrees on, whether two people or twenty… or more. Without agreement up front, explicitly clarifying that, dialogue rather than discussion is about to take place; most individuals fall into their habits of debate or lecturing. Dialogue is different from debate, which offers two points of view with the goal of proving the legitimacy or correctness of one of the viewpoints over the other. Dialogue, unlike debate or even discussion, is as interested in the relationship(s) between the participants as it is in the topic or theme being explored. Ultimately, real dialogue presupposes an openness to modify deeply held convictions. (Bakhtin,1990).


Dialogue   Discussion
 Starts with listening  Starts with speaking
 Is about speaking with  Is about speaking to
 Focuses on insights  Focuses on differences
 Is collaborative  Is adversarial
 Generates ideas  Generates conflicts
 Encourages reflection  Encourages quick thinking
 Encourages emergence  Encourages lock-in


Whether a work team or a supervisor-subordinate are planning to engage in dialogue, the ground rules should be considered and agreed upon. William Isaac, in his book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, suggests four primary ground rules. Any dialogue can start with these four, with others added that meet more specific needs.


For example, a supervisor and subordinate may agree that the dialogue “rules” apply in one-on-one meetings focusing on development or performance, but may not apply to production meetings. Another example might be that a family may decide their dialogue ground rules always apply at the dinner table.



“Listening is usually considered a singular activity. But in dialogue, one discovers a further dimension of listening: the ability not only to listen, but to listen together as part of a larger whole.”


“The challenge is to become aware of the fact that especially when we try hard to listen, we will often still have a part of us actively failing to do so. The key is to simply become aware of this, to make conscious just what we are doing. Awareness is curative; as we stand still, our listening can open us to frontiers we did not realize were there.”




“To be able to see a person as a whole being, we must learn another central element in the practice of dialogue: respect. Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is to look for the springs that feed the pool of their experience. The word comes from the Latin respecere, which means ‘to look again.’ Its most ancient roots mean ‘to observe.’ It involves a sense of honoring or deferring to someone.

Where once we saw one aspect of a person, we look again and realize how much of them we had missed. This second look can let us take in more fully the fact that here before me is a living, breathing being. When we respect someone, we accept that they have things to teach us.”


Respecting differences: “To enable a dialogue, a group of people must [also] learn to do something different: to respect the polarizations that arise without making any effort to ‘fix’ them.”  In dialogue, one learns that agreement on a mission or action rarely requires total agreement of perspectives, values and worldviews. This respect for differences is also called allophilia, or love of differences.


  1. Suspending

“When we listen to someone speak, we face a critical choice. If we begin to form an opinion we can do one of two things: we can choose to defend our view and resist theirs. First we can try to get the other person to understand and accept the “right” way to see things (ours!). We can look for evidence to support our view that they are mistaken, and discount evidence that may point to flaws in our own logic”.


“Or, we can learn to suspend our opinion and the certainty that lies behind it. Suspension means that we neither suppress what we think nor advocate it with unilateral conviction. Rather, we display our thinking in a way that lets us and others see and understand it. We simply acknowledge and observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise without being compelled to act on them. This can release a tremendous amount of creative energy.” (Zen meditation can be very useful in this process of suspension of beliefs. In Zen meditation you learn to observe your thoughts but not feel compelled to act on them or draw conclusions from them. Meditation might be a very useful warm-up exercise.)


  1. Voicing

“To speak your voice is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of genuine dialogue…. Finding your voice in dialogue means learning to ask a simple question: What needs to be expressed now?  For many of us this is no small feat. We have been inundated with numerous messages about how we ought to behave, what we ought to say, in all the different circumstances of our lives. To discover what we think and feel, independent of these things, requires courage and open mindedness. This is true in part because our authentic voice is not a rehash of others’ words. So we are unlikely to find someone else speaking what we ourselves need to say. Reference: Isaacs, Dialogue, 1999.



Four Dimensions of Broad, Sustainable Change


Individual:  Personal transformation


  • Help individuals grow and develop greater self-awareness
  • Education to broaden knowledge base
  • Training to broaden competency base
  • Attention to mental and spiritual health and growth
  • Make explicit and examine assumptions, mindsets, and mental models: Transformations not only in “what” one knows, but “how” one knows (epistemology).


Relationships: Transforming relationships


  • Reconciliation/Conflict transformation
  • Building trust and confidence
  • Promoting respect and recognition
  • Increasing knowledge and awareness of interdependence
  • Changing patterns of dysfunctional relations


Culture:  Transforming collective patterns of thinking and acting


  • Changing the “rules” and values that sustain patterns of exclusion
  • Exploring and transforming taken-for-granted collective habits of thinking and behavior
  • Promoting more inclusive, participatory culture of “civic engagement.”
  • Transforming patterns of overly simplistic and distorted discourse


Structures/Systems: Transforming structures, processes, mechanisms


  • Lobbying for more just policies, greater transparency and accountability, institutional rearrangements
  • Just and equitable allocation of resources and services
  • Reforming processes


Dialogue can help overcome prejudice and create understanding of other people’s perspectives. It can show us new ways of perceiving the world. And it can expand our horizon. Dialogue enables reaching across an abyss of different sights, as long as we see and recognise each other for what we are: different yet all human beings in the same world.

The author can be reached at: akitim33@yahoo.com

By Jimmy Atilio

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