Reprinted from the Supporting Parents issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 17 (1), pp. 22-23
"Dialogue is about expanding our capacity for attention, awareness and learning with and from each other. It is about exploring the frontiers of what it means to be human, in relationship to each other and our world." (Glenna Gerard1)
"Dialogue cannot exist [...] in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people." (Paulo Freire2)
When we are thinking about talking with our children, partner or someone else about a complex topic, such as drug use, mental distress or another issue, we may prepare by gathering information about some of the risks involved. We may be tempted to use facts and statistics to scare someone away from or change a behaviour we perceive as negative (leaving out possible benefits). We tend to think and decide for them. This is usually done with good intentions—we want to protect the people in our lives.
However, research shows that this is not the most effective way to help others navigate the world.
People need more than information. They need to be understood. Our goal is not to tell them what to think or which choices to make. Instead, we have to find ways to inspire the desire to communicate—about drugs or anything else—and achieve well-being. One method of communication that leads to meaningful engagement is dialogue.
Dialogue is a two-way conversation in which we seek to understand each other. While talking is part of the conversation, listening and asking good questions are the more important skills. In dialogue, the goal is not to find the right answers, reach agreement and "get to yes." Nor is it to prove our point or convince someone else of how wrong they are. Rather, in dialogue, we seek an understanding of someone else's perspective and to accept each other for who we are so that we can communicate better and live better togetger.3
The following are some of the key elements that foster dialogue.
Start with a safe space: A safe space is a welcoming, respectful and non-judgmental space where everyone can express differing ideas and opinions. Safe spaces reduce feelings of anxiety or vulnerability. Sitting in a circle, approaching others with empathy and openness, seeking first to understand then to be understood, practicing attentive listening and respecting confidentiality all foster safe spaces.
Build on your relationship: Positive relationships and open communication are the foundation for good dialogue. This involves understanding each other rather than focusing on truth or assessing the details of what others tell us (sometimes by jumping on them when we don't like what they try to say!)
In dialogue, even when we disagree, or when there is something we don't like, we need to recognize that another person's position represents a new possibility to be explored. This requires us to reflect on our assumptions and become aware of how our way of seeing the world is influenced by them. While this may not always be easy, it is worth the effort.
Listen: In dialogue, we avoid the temptation to shower our children, partner or others with wisdom; instead, we let them do at least half of the talking. Listening is not just about hearing words. It's being ready to hear others' ideas and positions, being open to new information regardless of the consequences to our own position and having the desire to understand new ideas and perspectives.
Suspending (not defending) our assumptions and judgements while listening to someone else (in other words, putting them on hold) is important, as is focusing only on what is being shared and trying to understand.
Be empathetic: Empathy is at the core of human relationships. It is the attempt to imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes and to try to see and feel the world from their perspective. In dialogue, rather than being too quick to say, "I know how you feel," we should empathetically take the time to explore how someone else feels about their own circumstances.
When we are empathetic, the intention is to know what another person is experiencing, and not necessarily to respond to that experience in any concrete way. Sometimes, we may tend to respond by distracting the person from their feelings and thoughts, or by getting logical and giving advice. It is important to keep in mind that being present, listening attentively, having an honest commitment to the pursuit of understanding and being willing to experience discomfort make empathy possible.
Be open and curious: In dialogue, everyone is open to new ideas and possibilities, and truly curious about how others think and why they see the world the way they do. Communicating perspectives and seeing the world through others' eyes allows us to share ideas without demanding acceptance, and to challenge assumptions without passing judgement. To promote openness and curiosity, we can practise encountering difference with thoughtful questions rather than defensiveness.
Ask open-ended questions: Open questions are far more useful in dialogue than attempting to elicit ready-made answers. Open questions do not have simple factual answers. How and why questions tend to be more powerful in generating dialogue than what questions.4 Here are some examples of open-ended vs. closed questions:
"How do you feel about...?" (Not: "Doesn't that make you feel...?")
"What do you think...?" (Not: "Don't you realize that...?")
"What worries you about...?" (Not: "Don't you think...is a problem?")
Moving dialogue forward
Dialogues are explorations without a specific destination. The path is open to be explored through conversation. Words and questions are the lanterns that light the way and illuminate new possibilities. We just need to follow along as explorers on an adventure.
About the author
Mahboubeh is passionate about using dialogue to develop resources and materials for teachers, parents and others. She founded The School of Inquiry (www.schoolofinquiry.com) to empower children, youth and adults to think critically, creatively and careingly. Mahboubeh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is available to provide consultations to communities, schools, parents and individuals to use dialogue in their practices
- Gerard, G. & Ellinor, L. (2021). Abridged excerpt from writings of The Dialogue Group (thedialoguegroup.net). Please see: uactgco.weebly.com/uploads/2/7/0/2/27026981/what_is_dialogue__-__the_dialogue_group.pdf
- Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M.B. Ramos, Trans.; 30th anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1968). Please see: envs.ucsc.edu/internships/internship-readings/freire-pedagogy-of-the-oppressed.pdf
- To learn more about dialogue, please visit: https://www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cisur/projects/archive/projects/cannabis-dialogues.php
- To learn more about questions, please visit: www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cisur/assets/docs/ltc-asking-good-questions.pdf