Dialogue: nine key dynamics

Resource Type:

Purpose: To create the right conditions for dialogue

Description: Nine key dynamics in a dialogue are 1) building a safe space, 2) openness, 3) respect, 4) storytelling, 5) listening, 6) suspending automatic response, judgment, and certainty, 7) collaborative inquiry, 8) finding common ground and exploring differences and 9) balancing advocacy and inquiry. 

Building a safe space: There is no single way to create a safe space, but it requires the joint effort of all participants and, often, a skilled facilitator. An agreement on confidentiality may also assist. The aim is to build enough trust to allow people to speak freely about the issues of most concern to them, to remain engaged when the conversation becomes difficult or painful and to cover diverse issues.

Openness: ‘…participants are asked to be open to multiple voices, styles of communication, and perspectives.’ Escobar (2011) provides an excerpt from Littlejohn, S. W. and K. Domenici’s 2001 book Engaging Communication in Conflict: Systemic Practice (Thousand Oaks CA: Sage; p. 47-48) which outlines the beneficial effects that can stem from openness:

– ‘We may learn more about our own experience and why we believe as we do.

– We may understand the position and experience of others better than we did before.

– We may discover important differences among people who take the same side on the issue.

– We may discover shared concerns and common ground among those with whom we disagree.

– We may come to respect our adversaries.

– We may come to realise that the issue is far more complex than we thought.

– We may become a little better able to live with ambiguity and fuzziness.

– We may learn new ways to frame the issue.

– We may discover new ways to talk productively about the issue.

– We may discover that old animosities and hostilities are reduced.

– We may find ways of working together despite our differences.’

Respect: Respect ‘…demands active engagement with the views and feelings of others, rather than passive open-mindedness.’ It means approaching the others in the dialogue with ‘genuine curiosity’, and being ‘ready to question the taken-for-granted stereotypes that prevent us from engaging meaningfully.’

Storytelling: Dialogue prioritises storytelling over other forms of communication because it is a common ability that most humans have and is therefore an egalitarian form of communication. ‘Stories allow speakers to share how their values, views, and feelings are connected to their personal experiences. Stories can encapsulate complex ideas and emotions and turn them into something meaningful that can be shared.’

Listening: The challenge is to listen in ways that empower others to speak. Listening thoughtfully and attentively often requires fighting the instincts and habits that are discussed next.

Suspending automatic response, judgment, and certainty: These suspensions are necessary to allow effective listening, especially to a different perspective being offered on matters that we care about profoundly. The focus is on understanding and drawing out each participant’s thinking without worrying about agreement.

Collaborative inquiry: Collaborative inquiry recognises that all perspectives have something to offer in understanding a problem, including both professional knowledge and lived experience.

Finding common ground and exploring differences: This comes about through ‘collaborative patterns of communication’ and by enabling participants to ‘navigate commonalities and differences’ brings about ‘new understandings and possibilities.’ It involves articulating ‘interests, values, needs and fears’ rather than positions.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry: Advocacy is about making oneself understood, while inquiry is about understanding others. The challenge in a dialogue is to achieve both effectively.

Reference: Escobar, Oliver. (2011). Public Dialogue and Deliberation: A Communication Perspective for Public Engagement Practitioners. Edinburgh Beltane, Beacon for Public Engagement, Edinburgh, UK. Open e-booklet online: https://i2s.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Public_Dialogue_and_Deliberation._Oliver_Escobar_2011_reprinted_2012.pdf (PDF 25.7MB)

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Posted: January 2013
Last modified: April 2020