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Building Trust in Dialogue

By Jason Combs

Dialogue in all its forms involves risk.  As Cissna and Anderson (1994) state, vulnerability is an essential characteristic of dialogue.  To participate in dialogue is to bring our authentic and genuine selves into a conversation.  Participants share not only their ideas and opinions, but also in many cases, the experiences through which they came to hold those views.  The deeper the dialogue, the more participants are called to bring these selves to bear on what is unfolding between them.  While there is never a guarantee of safety, there is much that participants can do to create an environment in which they and others feel capable of disclosing more of their authentic and genuine selves.  In this post, we offer some suggestions based on our experience in the Dialogue Zone about creating such an environment and maintaining it once it has been established.

Creating the Environment

To start, participants can talk about the way in which they want to interact with each other and come to some basic agreement about the nature of the conversation they want to have. 

Framing the Conversation

Dialogue is but one way of engaging others in the face of diverse viewpoints.  Discussion and debate are two other common modes of interaction, ones that are likely to be more familiar to most people.  Discussion involves sharing opinions and ideas but generally avoids exploration of the feelings, experiences, stories, and identities that ground these views.  The goal of discussion is typically to resolve an issue, to make a decision, or to arrive at some agreement about a common path of action.  Debate similarly involves sharing different views; in its civil form, it revolves around arguments and evidence.  The goal of participants is not to arrive at mutual understanding, but rather to argue for the superiority of one’s position.  Feelings, experiences, stories, and identities are not only irrelevant in a debate but might be seen as weak points in this effort.  While both of these alternatives to dialogue have advantages and disadvantages, they are the ones with which most people have the greatest experience.  Consequently, people often default to them when exploring different views. 

Dialogue, in contrast, does not require agreement, resolution of a task or issue, or arguing for any position.  Its primary purpose is mutual understanding.  If one wishes to engage specifically in dialogue with another person, then one might begin the conversation with clarifying what engaging each other in this mode means and inviting the person to take up this frame for the conversation:  "This is how I'd like to have this conversation...  As we talk about this topic, I'd like to strive for mutual understanding, not to argue about who is right..."

Community Norms

Another way participants can foster an environment of risk-taking and trust is by making agreements about specific practices in which they will engage and those in which they will not.  In the Dialogue Zone, we call such agreements community norms.  Community norms clarify the otherwise unspoken - and thus potentially contradictory - expectations that participants have about how to engage in dialogue.  Agreements such as “we will not interrupt each other” or “it is ok for people to talk about how others’ words or actions impacted them” provide a structure within which participants can interact.  Because the participants created that structure, they collectively own it.  Accordingly, they can revisit those expectations and modify them as needed.  If any of them feels that the interaction is deviating from the structure to which they have agreed, they have the group’s permission - one might even say the responsibility - to bring this departure to the group’s attention and invite the group to steer its way back into the mode of interaction that participants have chosen for themselves.  The Dialogue Zone has its own set of recommended community norms.  However, participants may adopt any norms they they believe will help them to stay in dialogue as the conversation unfolds.  What is key is that they have chosen those norms for themselves and take ownership of them as a structure for their conversation.

Building the Environment

Once dialogue begins, participants must continue to build an environment conducive to dialogue.  There are no formulas for doing so; however, there are some behaviors that promote a shared sense of trust among participants in a conversation.  Communication scholar Jack Gibb (1965) calls an environment in which participants do not perceive or anticipate a threat from others, a supportive climate:  “The more ‘supportive’ or defense reductive the climate, the less the receiver reads into the communication distorted loadings which arise from projections of his own anxieties, motives, and concerns. As defenses are reduced, the receivers become better able to concentrate upon the structure, the content, and the cognitive meanings of the message” (p. 222).  According to Gibb, if people want to create such an environment, they should engage in some combination of the following behaviors:

  1. Description:  Instead of criticizing others’ views, describe how one’s own views and those views differ from each other.  "You and I have different views about this topic.  You seem to be assuming that X is correct, while I do not share that assumption."
  2. Problem Orientation:  Instead of trying to coerce someone into doing something that they are not inclined to do, invite them to solve the problem or explore the issue with you.  "I want to work together on this.  I'd like to hear your thoughts about how we might proceed."
  3. Spontaneity:  Instead of attempting to manipulate or maneuver people according to some predetermined but undisclosed strategy, communicate one’s aspirations in an open-ended and transparent manner.  "I want to be entirely transparent here.  I am hoping that this conversation will lead to a stronger foundation for our collaboration, and if it meets both of our needs, I'd like to achieve X as an outcome."
  4. Empathy:  Instead of communicating through words or actions a lack of interest in others’ well-being, communicate genuine concern for them.  "I know that this is frustrating.  Even though we have different perspectives on this, I care about what you think and want to understand what you need."
  5. Equality:  Instead of engaging in behaviors that reflect a feeling of superiority over others, act and speak in a way that communicates a recognition that oneself and others are equal in worth and have equal ownership of the interaction.  "You and I both matter in this process.  Your voice is just as important as mine in this conversation."
  6. Provisionalism:  Instead of expressing your opinions and ideas in a way that assumes that you are right, offer those views as contributions to the conversation that can be considered and questioned, in a way that invites similar contributions from others.  "I strongly believe X to be true, but I also want to know what you think.  If you disagree, I want to hear your reasons."

Such behaviors have a cumulative effect.  As participants engage in them, they create an atmosphere that encourages people to drop their guard and expect that others will not attack them if they share their frank and honest views.  That atmosphere continues to grow as such behaviors happen with greater frequency and consistency.  The collaborative creation of such an environment over time goes a long way in motivating participants to take the risks essential to dialogue.

Repairing the Environment

As participants share more of their genuine thoughts and feelings, they should not be surprised if the trust they have created eventually is tested.  That participants feel empowered to share their genuine views increases the likelihood that someone will say or do something at some point that causes friction between one’s own views and those of another.  One might say something that angers another or even hurts another person.  Often such moments occur not because of any ill-intention on the part of any participant but rather because of participants’ embracing the spirit of authenticity and genuineness integral to dialogue.

In such moments, the participants might need to repair the environment that they have created.  In their book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Patterson, Granny, McMillan, and Switzler (2012) suggest three ways of repairing the environment for dialogue when safety has been compromised.  


If someone has done something that injures another person, then an apology might be appropriate.  The apology must be a sincere one, which recognizes the harm that one has done to the other person, expresses genuine sorrow, and admits one’s effort.  Moreover, one must show the other person how one’s motives have changed.  An apology that masks defensiveness or a desire to continue to be seen as “right” will not repair the damage that has been done to the environment and could damage it even further.  Note also that the apology occurs because of the harm that has been done to another person.  Patterson et al. (2012) suggest that people should not apologize when they feel that they have not done anything wrong.  Still, whether or not one intended to hurt the other person is not entirely relevant to the fact that harm was done.  One must use one’s judgment in deciding whether an apology is appropriate, but it is a means of repairing damaged trust that is worth consideration.


Another means of repairing the environment is contrasting.  Contrasting is a do/don’t statement that (1) “addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part)” and (2) “confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part)” (Patterson et al., 2012, p. 85).  For instance, one might tell a fellow participant, “I don’t want to communicate that I do not value your viewpoint on this topic.  I only want you to understand that my viewpoint is not necessarily the same as what you’ve shared.”  Contrasting is not the same as apology.  By contrasting, one is not saying that anyone has done anything wrong.  Contrasting rather helps to clarify potential misunderstandings that might otherwise challenge the environment of trust that participants have created.  As such, it can be useful in repairing damage to the environment that has occurred or bolstering it in the face of an immediate threat that is rooted in a lack of clarity among participants.

Creating a Mutual Purpose

Patterson et al. (2012) offer a third means of repairing an environment that has been damaged:  creating a mutual purpose.  Sometimes the environment for dialogue is threatened by participants losing faith that the participants are united in some common purpose.  Whatever the reason people have come together for a dialogue, they bring many motives and interests to a dialogue that are unique to them.  Through dialogue, we can strive to understand these diverse needs, interests, concerns, fears, and aspirations of participants.  Nevertheless, dialogue depends on participants’ sharing the goal of achieving mutual understanding.  If someone begins to believe that others in the dialogue are not committed to this goal, their own commitment to staying in dialogue may falter.  To repair the environment in such a case, participants might return to talking about the reasons they are engaging in this conversation in the first place.  Going back to the definition of dialogue and even the community norms is one way of doing this.  Turning to other overarching purposes might have a similar power to reaffirm people’s commitment to engaging each other in dialogue:  e.g., strengthening our relationship with each other, building a more compassionate organization, ensuring that everyone is treated fairly.  Patterson et al. (2012) suggest that “inventing” a mutual purpose might help to avoid further damage once trust is tested:  “Find an objective that is more meaningful or more rewarding than the ones that divide the various sides” (p. 93).  Participants must strive to find a point of unity between themselves and others, which can serve as a foundation for them to continue exploring their diverse views in a non-antagonistic, unpolarized manner.

Trust is a work in progress.  From start to finish, participants in dialogue must concern themselves with creating and safeguarding an environment conducive to the type of interaction that they want to have.  There are no guarantees and no formulas.  At no point can trust be taken for granted.  We in the Dialogue Zone have found these approaches to be helpful in fostering the trust that participants need, in order to do the difficult work of dialogue.  Hopefully, you will find them to be useful in your own efforts to have challenging conversations at a time when the need for such conversations in our society is so great.

Works Cited

Cissna, K. N., & Anderson, R. (1994).  Communication and the ground of dialogue.  In R. Anderson, K. N. Cissna, & R. C. Arnett (Eds.), The reach of dialogue:  Confirmation, voice, and community (pp. 9-30).  Cresskill, NJ:  Hampton.

Gibb, J. R. (1965).  Defensive communication.  ETC, 22 (2), 221-229.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2012).  Crucial conversations:  Tools for talking when stakes are high (2nd ed.).  New York:  McGraw-Hill.

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