Developing Activist Capacities - Dialogue
The Developing Activist Capacities series takes a deeper look at which capacities we need to be conscious activists.
Let's take a look at DIALOGUE!
What is it?
The word “dialogue” comes from two Greek roots, dia and logos, suggesting “meaning flowing through.” A dialogue is a conversation where there is a free flow of meaning in a group and diverse views and perspectives are encouraged (Hagrove, 1995).
Dialogue is also a discipline. The discipline of collective learning and inquiry.
Finally it is a process. It is the process of transforming the quality of the conversation in order to listen beyond our labels, assumptions and certainties. This process leads not only to a change in our listening and in our talking but to a change in our thinking (Isaacs, 1999).
Why does it matter?
So why is it important for us to engage in dialogue rather than conversations or debates? There are a few very important reasons:
- Shared meaning is the glue of society. Our society can function because we've agreed on certain ideas and concepts in common. If tomorrow you woke up and everybody decided money was just paper, money would lose all its value and its meaning as a means of exchange would disappear. Similarly, we can give meaning to things in our lives and create shared meaning through dialogue.
- Complex issues require intelligence, creativity, and insights beyond that of any individual. No one has all the solutions and there is no book for how to address all the complex issues we are dealing with. Moreover, each context requires a unique approach to address the set of challenges and intricacies associated with it. Dialogue enables us to bring different voices, perspectives, and talent to an issue to address it in ways no one person alone could.
- Dialogue is about shifting the relationship of power. Dialogue is not mere talk, it is democratic in nature and enables everyone to talk and be heard without difference. It creates space for the power to shift from one person or a few people to the whole group.
- Dialogue is necessary to deal with conflict and go past disagreements. In Kavithat Mediratt's words "Listening and learning from conflict and difference is vital for growth. It is also vital to building a bigger, more transcendent vision of the world we want and the strategies to get there."
- Dialogue is being threatened by the way we communicate digitally. In William Isaac's words "The digital revolution is giving us connection but not contact. We can send more information to each other, but we’re not necessarily any more capable of sharing understanding, insight, wisdom, or our hearts. Technology is only secondary to interaction and the deep connection that people only can have with and for one another."
- Dialogue helps create a culture of collaboration, cooperation, and inclusion. By engaging in dialogue, a group can start incorporating their subjective viewpoints into a shared definition of their needs, motives, and values. As they become aware of the fears, hopes, and deeply held values of other participants, people begin to trust each other more and feel closer to each other. They realize they have important things in common, which enables collective learning, creativity and a sense of belonging and fellowship.
How can we foster genuine & generative dialogue?
In fostering and nurturing genuine and generative dialogue, there are a number of elements to take into consideration: how you set up the space; how you show up; how the dialogue evolves in a group over time; and how you deal with conflict or tension. We will discuss all of these important dimensions below.
- The container should be a safe space of possibility, it is both the physical space and the atmosphere created by the energy, relationships, and interactions between people.
- Ideally, we recommend that participants sit in a circle in order for everyone to communicate directly and be heard as they speak to one another across the circle and without a hierarchy of physical position.
- There should be one or more facilitators, which are the people holding the space for others, even when there is no specific agenda. The facilitators do not dominate the conversation, rather, they ensure that the dialogue keeps moving and that everyone feels respected and safe in the container.
- It is important to also create space without any agenda, empty space where anything might come in.
- It is important to have discussions about the agreements, norms, intentions, and expectations of the space you want to create together.
We encourage you to come up with your own agreements and present these as recommended elements to incorporate based on our research and experience:
- Be curious and listen to understand.
- Suspend judgment and assume positive intent.
- Note common ground as well as differences.
- Be authentic and welcome that from others.
- Observe the observer and listen to your listening.
- Acknowledge intentions while taking responsibility for your impact.
- Treat the candidness of others as a gift and honor confidentiality.
Showing Up in Dialogue
Four practices are key for showing up in a dialogue: 1. Listening; 2. Respecting; 3. Suspending; and 4. Voicing
- Listening — We must listen not only to others but to ourselves, dropping our assumptions, resistance, and reactions.
- Respecting — We must allow rather than try to change people with a different viewpoint.
- Suspending —We must suspend our opinions, step back, change direction, and see with new eyes.
- Voicing —We must speak our own voice. Find our own authority, giving up the need to dominate. We build on what others have said rather than openly contradicting them or debating their ideas.
- The two main parts of dialogue are: Expressing yourself authentically & Listening without judgment
- We need to get into proximity with things that make us uncomfortable and perspectives that are difficult to hear.
- We have to see genuine value in others we’re dialoguing with. Treat the people you come in contact with as a teacher. All participants must regard one another as peers.
Some tips that are helpful when in dialogue:
- Wait — Let the other person speak fully before asking questions. Try not to formulate a response before they finish.
- Assume positive intentions — Assume that the other person has good intentions.
- Use "I" statements — Use "I" statements to keep the discussion based on your personal experience, rather than pointing fingers. Speak for yourself rather than for your group.
- Lean into discomfort — This discussion will likely be uncomfortable and challenging, but we think growth and learning can come from this place.
- Embrace silence — Allow yourselves periods of silence if needed. Give yourself time to process what you've heard and talked about. Give everyone the right to decline to answer a question without having to justify themself.
- Ask sincere questions — Great conversations usually begin with great questions that are sincere and driven by curiosity.
The Levels of Collaborative Dialogue
According to Hargove (1998), there are 4 levels or type of collaborative conversations:
- Conversations in which the group clarifies its purpose. In reality, the only time people will collaborate is when they have a clear and inspiring purpose in which they have a lot at stake. Therefore, the first level of collaborative effort for a group is to have a free and informed discussion about its vision, purpose, and goals.
- Conversations in which the group builds a community of commitment. On one level, creating a community of commitment involves speaking to the personal visions and purposes that live in people's minds and hearts. On another level, it involves encouraging people to step back from the front lines and engage in a different kind of conversation. The conversations that build community are those where people speak with authenticity and vulnerability about themselves, about one another, and about the problems they are faced with." Building community becomes the cornerstone for productive conversations on issues and problems and makes possible decisions, plans, and strategies that everyone can stand behind. (Hargrove, 1995, p. 213)
- Conversations in which the group learns to think and interact better together. In the "cook together" model of conversation, people bring their different views and backgrounds along with all the ingredients of their thinking and enter into a shared creative process. Instead of serving up finished products, people take their raw ideas, cook them together with other's thoughts, question the reasoning process, and perhaps come to a new idea or insight. (Hargrove, 1995, p. 213-214). These conversations involve gathering divergent views and perspectives and building a shared understanding of these divergences to create new options that connect the different views. 4
- Conversations in which powerful commitments are made. It's important to help them make a distinction between a promise and an "I'll try," between a request and a complaint, and between an offer to do something and an opinion on how things should be done. (Hargrove, 1995, 214)
The Pitfalls that Block Dialogue & Dealing with Conflict
The most common pitfalls that block genuine dialogue from emerging are the following:
- Making faulty assumptions and identifying with them - Be careful not to identify with your opinions and mistake them as truth.
- Dismissing or trivializing the concerns or others.
- Defining the "other" according to one single characteristic or identity marker.
- Not accepting that the essence of a free society is the right to be different and to act "wrongly" in the eyes of others.
Conflict might arise when the emotional charge builds but conflicts - and dealing with conflicts in a healthy way - give a unique opportunity to create strong bonds between people. Below, we discuss ways to deal with conflict in a healthy way:
- Assume best intentions and acknowledge intentions but take responsibility for your impact.
- Focus on behavior and events, not personalities.
- Listen deeply and actively.
- Identify points of agreements and disagreements.
- Acknowledge, respect, and thank.
Strategies & Practice Exercises
Here you will find strategies and exercises you can practice with to become better at listening and at engaging in dialogue, both in your group and on your own.
Strategies for Active Listening
- Stop. Focus on the other person, their thoughts and feelings. Consciously focus on quieting your own internal commentary, and step away from your own concerns to think about those of the speaker. Give your full attention to the speaker.
- Look. Pay attention to non-verbal messages, without letting yourself be distracted. Notice body language and non-verbal cues to allow for a richer understanding of the speaker’s point. Remember that “active listeners need to communicate to the speaker that they are involved and giving the person unconditional attention” (Weger, Castle, & Emmett, 2010, p. 35).
- Listen. Listen for the essence of the speaker’s thoughts: details, major ideas and their meanings. Seek an overall understanding of what the speaker is trying to communicate, rather than reacting to the individual words or terms that they use to express themselves.
- Be empathetic. Imagine how you would feel in their circumstances. Be empathetic to the feelings of the speaker, while maintaining a calm centre within yourself. You need not be drawn into all of their problems or issues, as long as you acknowledge what they are experiencing.
- Ask questions. Use questions to clarify your understanding, as well as to demonstrate interest in what is being said.
- Paraphrase. If you don’t have any specific questions to ask, you may choose to repeat back to the speaker, in your own words, what you have taken away, in order to allow the speaker to clarify any points (Weger et al., 2010).
Strategies for Effective Verbal Communication
- Focus on the issue, not the person. Try not to take everything personally, and similarly, express your own needs and opinions in terms of the job at hand. Solve problems rather than attempt to control others. For example, rather than ignoring a student who routinely answers questions in class with inappropriate tangents, speak with the student outside of class about how this might disrupt the class and distract other students.
- Be genuine rather than manipulative. Be yourself, honestly and openly. Be honest with yourself, and focus on working well with the people around you, and acting with integrity.
- Empathize rather than remain detached. Although professional relationships entail some boundaries when it comes to interaction with colleagues, it is important to demonstrate sensitivity, and to really care about the people you work with. If you don’t care about them, it will be difficult for them to care about you when it comes to working together.
- Be flexible towards others. Allow for other points of view, and be open to other ways of doing things. Diversity brings creativity and innovation.
- Value yourself and your own experiences. Be firm about your own rights and needs. Undervaluing yourself encourages others to undervalue you, too. Offer your ideas and expect to be treated well.
- Use affirming responses. Respond to others in ways that acknowledge their experiences. Thank them for their input. Affirm their right to their feelings, even if you disagree. Ask questions, express positive feelings; and provide positive feedback when you can.
- Empathy Circle: In a circle of 3 to 5 people:
- The first person selects who they will speak to;
- The first person speaks about whatever comes up for them for a set time (typically 3-5 min);
- The listener reflects back what they are hearing until the speaker feels heard and understood to their satisfaction.
- Then it is the listener’s turn to select who they will speak to and for that new listener to reflect back what they are hearing.
- Think, Pair, Share: Rather than jumping immediately into whole group discussion on a topic or proposal, you can set aside 1- 5 minutes for participants to think individually about the topic at hand. Next, ask participants to share their thoughts in pairs. Finally, come together as a whole group to share what has arisen so far. You can also choose to skip the solo think piece and begin a conversation with discussion in pairs, or in small groups of 3-4 people.
Personal Exercises & Reflection Questions
- Beginner's mindset: The technique invites you to try to forget everything you know (or think you know!) about a subject or project and view it as if completely fresh – with no expertise, experience or opinions.
- Presencing Institute - Listening https://www.presencing.org/resource/tools/listen-desc
- Reflect on the following questions:
- Describe an experience where you felt deeply listened to. What was going on? What bit of wisdom did you learn from that experience?
- When are you most comfortable in sharing your thoughts? In what venues or groups is this most likely to happen? When do you find it difficult?
- How do you demonstrate respect for others, while maintaining an ability to speak your mind?
Curated by Zineb Mouhyi