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What is Dialogue?

By Jason Combs

Dialogue is an ambiguous term, one for which people have many different meanings.  Many people use the term to refer to any interaction in which people with different views engage each other and somehow exchange those views.  Some use it to refer to talk in general, such as that between actors on a stage. The Dialogue Zone operates with a different definition as a foundation, one that is much more specific.  As we define it, dialogue is “a communicative process in which people with different perspectives seek understanding.” To be in dialogue means that participants are not only engaging each other in light of their different views, but they are also striving to achieve a degree of mutual understanding.  

There are many forms of interaction in which people with different views engage each other.  Discussion is one of those forms. In discussion, people interact with a goal of articulating their diverse views.  While there is value in interacting with others in this way, discussion demands little from participants in terms of building understanding.  As long as participants listen politely to each other and don’t engage in behaviors that undermine other people’s ability to talk about their views, the purposes of discussion are met.  Participants in dialogue must do more than this. As they listen to others, they do not do so passively. Rather, they make an active effort to understand the perspective that the other person has shared.  This requires behaviors that allow participants as a group to move beneath a superficial comprehension of the content of each other’s words. They might ask questions to clarify meanings, experiences, and intentions and to probe for additional information.  They might paraphrase to ensure that they have understood the other person accurately. They might mirror to others how they are presenting themselves in the interaction, with the goal of checking their perceptions of others’ intentions and feelings. One might describe this way of interacting with others as a form of “deep listening.”  As our undergraduate students learn in CMM 100, dialogue is “a process of interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn” ("Principles of Oral Communication," 2018, p. 323).

That being said, dialogue does not always go smoothly, nor is it always easy.  Despite its overarching purpose of building understanding, participants in dialogue can speak from standpoints that might differ from each other to a considerable degree.  Such differences can give rise to tensions among participants, even conflict. To engage in dialogue means that participants commit to building understanding despite such difficulties, and in the end, they strive to rise above the temptation to see each other as adversaries.  This is one of the principal differences between dialogue and debate, another form of interaction in which people with different views engage each other. In debate, there is an adversarial relationship between participants as they engage each other. Whatever understanding they build with regard to each other’s views, they do so within the context of that relationship.  Participants might strive to understand each other enough to expose the weaknesses in each other’s positions. In dialogue, however, there are no “sides.” There are no “winners” or “losers.” To “win” in dialogue means to push the limits of understanding further than where they stood prior to the conversation. If participants walk away with a better understanding of their own views and those of others, then the dialogue was successful.  If a clash of opinions occurs through a dialogue, then participants strive to see the spark between those views as an opportunity to explore the topic at a greater depth and to understand the different ways participants have experienced that topic, including the strong emotions that it has evoked.

This brings up another characteristic of dialogue that is worth mentioning:  dialogue is a process.  This means that dialogue unfolds across time.  In fact, sometimes time is one of the most critical elements in the success of a dialogue.  People with diverse views can come together and have a single conversation that allows them to develop a richer and more profound understanding of each others’ views; nonetheless, the depth and breadth of understanding are likely to be relatively limited in a one-time interaction.  Dialogue requires trust, for often, the views that people hold on any given issue, especially a controversial and potentially divisive one, are ones that they would not share with just anybody. People are more likely to share such views when they have the opportunity to build trust with each other over time.  It is for that reason that some of the most successful dialogues take weeks, months, or even years to develop. Well-known examples include the peace talks in Northern Ireland that laid the foundation for the Good Friday Accord or those that accompanied the fall of apartheid in South Africa.  

The Dialogue Zone recognizes the fluid, unfolding nature of dialogue.  While many of its programs provide faculty, staff, and students with opportunities to come together for brief interactions to share their diverse views and build some measure of understanding, its hope is that some of these interactions will develop into sustained conversations, wherein participants can build trust and achieve an increasingly deeper and more profound understanding of their diverse views over multiple interactions.  These conversations are “dialogues” in a fuller sense of that term. Such interactions have a much greater power to transform than the ones that span only a single moment in time and, as such, are fundamental to building understanding in the face of some of our community’s thorniest issues. Fostering such a conversation takes time and enduring commitment on the part of those who wish to create it. Let us hope that the Dialogue Zone can be a place where dialogues in this sense of the term can occur, alongside the many other opportunities in the space for people to engage each other in one-time interactions to understand their differing views.


Principles of oral communication (2018-2019 ed.) (2018).  Southlake, TX: Fountainhead.

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