The act of collaboration must start with dialogue. You cannot build relationships without having an understanding of your potential partners, and you cannot achieve that understanding without a special form of communication that goes beyond ordinary conversation. Long-time observer of the American public Daniel Yankelovich shares with us his analysis of what dialogue is and how to do it.

Most people have two purposes for doing dialogue: to strengthen personal relationships and to solve problems. Both of these are crucial to collaboration. But what is dialogue, and what can it do for us that other ways of talking cannot?

Webster defines the purpose of dialogue as “seeking mutual understanding and harmony.” I put less emphasis on harmony than the dictionary does, because the outcome of dialogue is not always harmony. In fact, as a consequence of dialogue you may come to understand why you disagree so vehemently with someone else; there will be better understanding but not necessarily more harmony.

In philosopher Martin Buber’s classic work I and Thou, Buber suggests that in authentic dialogue something far deeper than ordinary conversation goes on. In Buber’s philosophy, life itself is a form of meeting and dialogue is the “ridge” on which we meet. In dialogue, we penetrate behind the polite superficialities and defenses in which we habitually armor ourselves. We listen and respond to one another with an authenticity that forges a bond between us. The act of reaching beyond the self to relate to others in dialogue is a profound human yearning. If it were less commonplace, we would realize what a miracle it is.

Doing dialogue takes special skills that most Americans do not yet possess. Effortless dialogue among people who think alike still does exist–but the cohesiveness of people who have grown into a shared worldview through a long-enduring relationship is increasingly rare.

All practitioners of dialogue emphasize that debate is the opposite of dialogue. The purpose of debate is to win an argument, to vanquish an opponent. Dialogue has very different purposes–it’s about exploring common ground. Dialogue is also different from discussion. Like discussion, dialogue can take place among a larger group than two people. But three distinctive features of dialogue differentiate it from discussion or other forms of talk. They are:

  1. Equality and the absence of coercive influences. Mixing people of unequal status and authority does not necessarily preclude dialogue, but it makes it more difficult to achieve. Dialogue becomes possible only after mutual trust has been built and the higher-ranking people have, for the occasion, removed their badges of authority and are participating as true equals.
  2. Listening with empathy. The gift of empathy–the ability to think someone else’s thoughts and feel someone else’s feelings–is indispensable to dialogue. This is why discussion is more common than dialogue: people find it easy to express their opinions and to bat ideas back and forth with others, but most of the time they don’t have either the motivation or the patience to respond empathically to opinions with which they may disagree or that they find uncongenial.
  3. Bringing assumptions into the open. Unexamined assumptions are a classic route to misunderstandings and errors of judgment. Dialogue requires that participants be uninhibited in bringing their own and other participants’ assumptions into the open, where, within the safe confines of the dialogue, others can respond to them without challenging them or reacting to them judgmentally.

I would like to suggest a number of strategies for successful dialogue. The first, a bedrock strategy, is to check for the presence of all three core requirements of dialogue–equality, empathic listening, and surfacing assumptions non-judgmentally–and learn how to introduce the missing ones.

Here are two more that deal with beginning a dialogue.

Err on the side of including people who disagree. Many meetings take the form of preaching to the converted. This is because it is much easier to spend time congratulating people who agree with you on the wisdom of their views than to seek mutual understanding with people holding different views.

Initiate dialogue through a gesture of empathy. A gesture of empathy is probably the closest thing to an “open sesame” for dialogue. Gestures of empathy often come as a surprise. In our transactions with one another, we are so used to wearing defensive armor that expressions of empathy are unexpected–and disarming. (A gesture of empathy usually involves acknowledging the validity of the other person’s point of view.)

These next four strategies apply to the question of what to focus on during a dialogue.

Minimize the level of mistrust before pursuing practical objectives. It is difficult to empathize with people you mistrust or to reveal your deepest assumptions in the presence of those you mistrust. At the same time, however, dialogue is a trust-building process. You need to incrementally establish a minimum level of trust to start a dialogue and then gradually build up enough to pursue a common objective.

Keep dialogue and decision-making compartmentalized. The most common purpose for initiating dialogue is decision-making. But the two must be kept separate or they will undermine each other. The line of demarcation between the two may be formal or informal, clear or vague, short or long. For truly difficult decisions, the act of seeking mutual understanding through dialogue should come before all of the practical constraints and clash of interests involved in practical decision-making are brought to bear.

Focus on common interests, not divisive ones. For more on this, see also the article on the future search methodology in this issue of the magazine.

Use specific cases to raise general issues. This strategy is exactly how most Americans bring their experiences and understanding to bear on issues. They do not formulate the beliefs, principles, and convictions they have acquired from their life experiences as abstract principles, as a moral philosopher might do. Rather, they apply them to specific cases.

I’d like to suggest these next five strategies as finer distinctions for how to surface assumptions.

Bring forth your own assumptions before speculating on those of others. If you are willing to open up first, especially if what you say about your own assumptions shows you in a vulnerable light, it will make it easier for other participants to be equally open. What is gracious for you to admit to could be offensive if you attribute it to others.

Clarify assumptions that lead to subculture distortions. It is always useful to identify the main subcultures represented in a meeting and to make the effort to understand their different styles of thought and participation. (Think of the different styles among businesspeople, academics, or journalists.) But it would be gratuitous–and possibly offensive to participants–to call attention to these stylistic differences unless they are actively interfering with the stated purpose of the dialogue.

Where applicable, identify mistrust as the real source of misunderstandings. If the mistrust is not deep or personal, a reasonably straightforward strategy is simply to bring it to the surface. To do this, you can offer a gesture of empathy that addresses the mistrust or you can say something like, “I know that we may not fully trust each other, but let’s try to talk things out for the sake of our common objective, or at least so that we can understand each other better.”

Expose old scripts to a reality check. This is a special form of surfacing assumptions. We interpret events according to our own unwritten “scripts.” These scripts are formed partially through individual experience and partially through the experience of organizations. Sometimes corporate cultures grow obsolete; their rituals and value systems persist even when circumstances have changed beyond recognition. Bringing assumptions into the open clarifies whether a script is still relevant to today’s realities.

Focus on conflicts between value systems, not people. Sometimes value systems are in conflict within the same individual–business trustees may be as concerned with fulfilling an organization’s mandate as they are about its viability as a business. Similarly, a group of physicians and administrators of a hospital may all have internalized the conflicting values between the traditional ethos of the physician and the business ethos of managed costs. The best strategy is for participants to work with one another to bring conflicting value systems into the open, where they can be judged in the light of the specific issues the organization faces.

Emotions play a critical role in dialogue. These last three strategies describe some constructive ways of addressing the emotions surrounding dialogue.

Be sure trust exists before addressing transference distortions. Psychologists use the word “transference” to describe the process of projecting onto others feelings originating in earlier experiences–for example, associating the behavior of your boss with that of your father during your childhood. But transference distortions are not like other hidden assumptions–they can get very personal. Bringing them into the open can be personally threatening and should be avoided unless a relationship of trust preexists the dialogue or is developed within it.

When appropriate, express the emotions that accompany strongly held values. Dialogue is never a mere technical or deliberative exercise. Dialogue always reaches into deep pockets of personal convictions and fundamental values. If the status quo is to be subject to question, strong feelings are bound to surface.

Encourage relationships in order to humanize transactions. Reaching out to others during transactions to develop relationships, however brief or casual, is a strategy that most people follow automatically and intuitively. For example, it is almost instinctive for people who have been meeting to have lunch or dinner together even if it serves no practical purpose. All of us are drawn to the ancient ritual of breaking bread together.

The very process of dialogue has a “civilizing” influence. Dialogue binds us together as communities. To engage in genuine dialogue is to create and strengthen such values of civil society as: building trust in one another; feeling familiar and comfortable together; finding it easy and natural to cooperate with one another and knowing how to create the common ground on which successful cooperation depends; weaving a complex web of working relationships that cut across institutional boundaries; and feeling a sense of identity with those with whom one shares community.

If the values of reciprocity, stewardship, responsibility, citizenship, civic virtue, and love describe various facets of how we take care of one another in a civil society, it matters a great deal whether we like, respect, trust, and understand one another or stereotype, distance, distort, and mistrust one another. Civil society stands or falls on this foundation of feelings. The magic of dialogue is that it really does enhance respect and acceptance of others, thereby creating community and social capital.

This article is adapted from Daniel Yankelovich’s book, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Reprinted with permission.

Daniel Yankelovich is the chairman and founder of Viewpoint Learning, Inc. and the Public Agenda. He is an adviser to large corporations, government, and professional organizations.