Does Dialogue Create Understanding Across Difference?

Well… that depends. It depends upon participants suspending judgement. It depends upon participants suspending the need for an outcome, a decision, a plan of action. It depends upon participants suspending a need to be right. And it depends upon participants being willing to really listen to each other, to inquire – with a sense of curiosity – about the assumptions of others and even more importantly, to inquire – with curiosity and courage – about their own assumptions. So yes, dialogue can create understanding across difference if the above conditions are met.

I recently attended a dialogue on Bridging the Climate Change Divide that Transition US hosted. A thorny subject when discussed across political and ideological divides. But dialogue, at least in the form we used, is not discussion. It is not about convincing, arguing, debating or proving a point. It is about engaging in the adventure of exploration, discovery and connection between one human being and another. I found it fascinating. We wound from one type of topic area to another and with each circuit of the spiral conversation deepened. People relaxed, considered more fully the comments made before, and then something subtle happened. We were just people in a room, listening, expressing, and then there it was – connection. I didn’t have to agree, disagree, defend or attack. But I could begin to understand. What? I am not really sure. Maybe the diversity that is humankind? The opportunity that is always there in any interaction? The stirrings of hope that we actually might figure out how to work together on really thorny issues?

Our college intern, Gabby Summerlin, also attended the dialogue event and had these reflections:

The dialogue was interesting because it brought together many people from different backgrounds. We gathered together in a circle and brought forward our thoughts and opinions about current issues taking place in our world. The main subject was that of climate change, and how is changing climate affecting us and other people around the world. As well as ideas on how to resolve this issue, that is if it’s not too late for us to act.

I learned a lot from this dialogue such as that there are many people out there who truly care about what is occurring in our world. I also learned that if you have a dialogue that has ground rules such as respect, no judgment, and no expected outcome, that it allows people to truly open up and talk about what is on their mind about the issue at hand.

Some improvements that I think could occur for the next dialogue: I would like to see more of a variety of people attend specifically people more around my age. I am 22 years old and I found myself to be the only one my age who attended. I wish that people my age would actually attend events like this because it is ultimately going to be my generation and the generation after me who will be stuck fixing these issues. Another thing I feel that could use some improvement is that I wish more people from other communities such as the Hispanic community, the deaf community, youth communities, and Native American communities etc. would attend. I feel that if we broaden our group of people attending dialogues like this then we can really make a much greater impact.

Great suggestions, and the tool of dialogue might be just the vehicle to connect some of these communities, their concerns, and their gifts together.

Apparently, as a dialogue group progresses, participants can become acutely aware of the thought process itself and understand the assumptions underlying individual and collective beliefs. Reflection on these assumptions could reveal blind spots and incoherencies from which participants could then free up more creativity.

Our particular evening of dialogue was a one-off but I like the idea of employing this method and seeing where it could take us. To greater understanding? To new ideas and possibilities? To more connection and compassion? If so, it’s a road I am keen to travel. ___________________________________________________________________________________

More info on Bohm Dialogue here and some info on our evening’s facilitator: Linda Ellinor is known for her pioneering work in training facilitators in ‘Bohm Dialogue.’ She is co-founder of the Dialogue Group and co-author of Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation, Wiley & Sons, 1998 which has been translated into 3 languages. She has over 25 years of experience in the corporate world and as a consultant, holds advanced degrees in business and psychology and is a climate change advocate.

Some weblinks of interest:,,

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