The term “dialogue” seems to appear everywhere these days, and the concept is at risk of being reduced to one of those buzzwords that soon become overused, and thus loose their transformational potential. Our team at the DIALOGUE Research Project has been analysing the studies and practices of dialogue from a communication’s perspective.
Dialogue is usually understood as a philosophy, a process or a conversational format. In essence, it refers to interaction that focuses on the quality of communication and relationship. This approach is specially suitable to deal with controversial issues that involve a variety of stakeholders, or to help to set up inquiry scenarios where interpersonal communication stimulates collective intelligence in order to deal with a complex topic.
Dialogue is not the solution for every communication problem, and neither can it be applied to every scenario. Its principles and practices require high quality of interpersonal contact, willingness to experiment with new ways of relating to each other, and critical open reflection on issues such as power, status or expertise.
Nevertheless, dialogue is proving to be a promising and useful alternative to the instrumental and confrontational modes of communication that dominate the public sphere.
Challenging communication (or how the project started)
Over the last two decades, practices of consultation and public participation have gained an important place in policy making . However, critics often point out the symbolic, or merely instrumental, manipulative use of these processes. The Dialogue Research Project at QMU has emerged as a response to cynicism surrounding the use of traditional consultation and stakeholder engagement techniques within both corporate and public arenas.
A new approach has been gaining momentum worldwide, bringing new critical insights and possibilities into the realm of the public sphere by placing a clear emphasis on the micro-level of interpersonal communication and the importance of fostering its dialogic qualities in order to achieve genuinely collaborative processes.
Despite the enormous changes in communication technology and the potential for increased interactivity in public communication since the 1990s, the public sphere seems dominated by monologues and unidirectional communication, pre-packaged messages, superficial sound bite contents and confrontational modes of engaging in conversation when it comes to deal with complex issues.
There are not many spaces that foster what we call Dialogue: a way of talking and listening where the focus is not on competition, persuasion, propaganda or traditional negotiation but on communication which values the interaction itself and the way in which it changes participants. The transformational potential of Dialogue resides in the “in between” generative space created by the participants in conversation and a spirit of mutual inquiry -rather than advocacy- in order to bring “the unspoken” (our taken-for-granted assumptions) into the open, thus moving the conversation forward by broadening perspectives through reciprocal exploration. The underlying attempt is to overcome the dominant instrumental use of communication that frames human beings as objects within power games.
Our approach recognises the legitimate and useful place that classic notions of debate have in our society. However, we question the apparent consensus around the practice of polarised debate as the best suited to deal with every organizational, social and political issue. If we think about some emergent complex areas: energy policy, environmental sustainability, business responsibility, health care and wellbeing, biotechnology, community development, gay and lesbian rights, affirmative action, assisted suicide, abortion… “How well-suited is the familiar bipolar model in a culture whose increasing diversity has dramatically increased the number of voices and perspectives that demand to be heard?” (Hyde & Bineham 2000)
The potential of dialogue lies in its ability to complement deliberation in a variety of social and organizational scenarios. If deliberation is the art of analysing a set of given alternatives and determining a decision-making course of action, dialogue places its emphasis in the previous stage: the open exploration of world-views, value frames, assumptions and experiences that contribute to shape the alternatives. Moreover, dialogue allows space for unforeseen collective creativity, as a result of interpersonal dynamics of inquiry into the multifaceted aspects that underpin complex issues.
There are different approaches to dialogue from a long list of humanities and social science disciplines: Communication, Management, Political Science, Education, Psychology, Philosophy, etc. QMU’s DIALOGUE Research Project draws on many of them, and places a clear focus on interpersonal communication that explores difference as a valuable asset. From our perspective, fostering dialogic communication is a craft and there is no systematic recipe that can be replicated in every scenario. Furthermore, it requires discipline and skill as much as willingness and effort. Overall, it demands from the participants thorough reflection on their communicative habits and power dynamics, in addition to an open determination to experience different ways of relating to “the Others”.
We work on the premise that dialogue is simultaneously a way of looking at and being in communication. Our aim is to contribute to gain scholarly insight that also informs practical expertise.
It is truly exciting for our team to be working on a challenging practice of communication that challenges dominant practices of communication.
November 2008, Edinburgh.