Dialog for Change

Rules for dialog are usually very basic summaries. Here’s a slightly more extended version:

  1. Listen to learn. Listen to understand others. Don’t think about what you are going to say while others are talking.
  1. Prepare in advance to speak up. Don’t waste other peoples’ time.
    1. Present facts as you know them. Cite sources.
    2. State major assumptions that you are aware of making.
  1. Everybody should speak on the first round on any topic. Everybody has a time limit.
  1. Don’t argue, point fingers, drift into irrelevant stories, etc. If this starts, to stop it anyone in the group can speak up with a code phrase, like “foul,” “below the belt,” “irrelevant,” or whatever phrase group selects when reviewing rules.

Rule 5 depends on the purpose of the dialog. Some meetings are just to clarify understanding. No collective course of action is expected to emerge.

If a dialog series attempts to progress toward collective action, Rule 5 applies.

  1. Keep a record of what happened and decisions made. Don’t leave until everyone knows what to do – or what to prepare for the next meeting.

If dialog is carefully practiced, its strong point is developing mutual understanding, if not agreement. That may take some time, so participants continuing to participate signals that their minds are open. Shifts in deep beliefs then become possible.

That possibility makes Rule #2 above difficult to execute. None of us can articulate every assumption that we make. Indeed, we may be foggy on most and totally blind to others (like fish unaware that they are in water). Awareness of our assumptions and deep beliefs comes through introspection between meetings. This we can do on our own, but we are more likely to sharpen our insight if an observer advises us on how others see our biases and blind spots. The aim is to help us clarify our beliefs and assumptions as we prepare for another round of dialog.

And if dialog is successful, it helps all participants realize that a problem situation in total is not what any member thought it was when they began (sometimes called wisdom of the group). Then if desired, they may work toward a resolution more satisfactory to all.

That possibility makes it desirable for dialog on a serious situation to identify all the stakeholders relevant to the situation. And that brings up another consideration, who speaks for the ecology in any dialog?

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