Dialogue: Not Just a Conversation




In a political climate that’s growing more and more polarizing, to talk about politics with someone of a different affiliation is also becoming increasingly stressful. In fact, according to a recent research by the Pew Research Center, the case is especially true for Liberal Democrats.

On a broader interpersonal level, this increased struggle to communicate with people with different ideologies can be explained by psychology studies on how people make friends. Contrary to the popular belief that “opposites attract,” we tend to be drawn towards those who we think are like us. When it comes to close relationships, similarities span across multiple characteristics, such as “age, education, race, religion, attitudes, and general intelligence.” And even among couples with opposite beliefs, there’s a tendency for one partner to change and adjust to the other’s ideas.

Then, because we usually surround ourselves with like-minded people, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to discuss and practice discussing sensitive topics with those who don’t think like us. As a consequence, when the time comes, we don’t know how to act in such an interaction, and hence the anxiety, the stress, the dread.

Even on a campus as politically involved as Mount Holyoke College, I’ve also felt that energy firsthand as it clouds over many, many people, not just students, but also faculty and staff. I too didn’t know how to talk to people who didn’t share the same liberal ideologies as me. I mean, don’t you want everyone to have equal access to all rights? Are you a cold-blooded monster or what? I couldn’t wrap my head around why someone would disagree with me.

However, that all changed when I learned about “dialogue,” a practice that has helped me engage with difficult conversations, and made me excited to seek them out, even! If you’ve tried talking to someone with different opinions and were unsuccessful, or if you’re interested in tackling the issue of polarization yet don’t know how to begin to address it, I think dialogue might just be the tool you need.

Before we dive deeper into “dialogue” as a tool for navigating controversial topics, I also want to say that dialogue isn’t just useful for that one purpose only. You can use dialogue in any way you see fit! I’d also advise against using dialogue to talk about social justice with someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs if that’ll put you in danger. In fact, as you’ll soon see as you continue reading, a dialogue needs cooperation from both parties. If one side is disrespectful and/or malicious, it won’t be a dialogue anymore, but something entirely different.

So what is a dialogue? Isn’t it just a synonym for “conversation”?

That’s true, but a more nuanced understanding of “dialogue” will help us see why it can be a useful tool to tackle hard conversations. David Bohm, an American theoretical physicist, has founded this practice of dialogue for common understanding, also known as “Bohm Dialogue” or “Bohmian Dialogue.”

First, to get to know Bohm Dialogue, we need to distinguish between debate and dialogue. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Those two seem totally opposite things already! But you’d be surprised by how much you’ll learn once you take the time to really reflect on their differences.



There are, of course, more materials just a Google click away, as these modes of communication have been the topics of scholarly research and academic discourse. But this is a great start to get us thinking about why dialogue might be a better choice when engaging in difficult conversations.

Debate, as seen in the graphic, is described as “about winning” and finding “one right answer.” Doesn’t this sound like a frustrating exchange between two political parties about a social issue that we see so often on the news?

Dialogue, on the other hand, emphasizes “learning,” collaboration, and exploring “new options.” As you can see, even though both debate and dialogue refer to an exchange between people, their aims are not the same. Debate focuses on proving one is right no matter what, while dialogue redirects the priority to the conversation itself and the acceptance of different thoughts. As Bohm has eloquently explained, “In a dialogue, there is no attempt to gain points, or to make your particular view prevail. Rather, whenever any mistake is discovered on the part of anybody, everybody gains. It's a situation called win-win, in which we are not playing a game against each other but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins.”

To have a dialogue is as challenging as it is rewarding and wonderful. A dialogue is made of the following four building blocks, in no particular order (reference):

1. Suspension of Judgement: Focus on what is being said instead of immediately jumping to our own reactions to it.

2. Identifying Assumptions: What experience have we had regarding this issue? What do we think we know about it?

3. Active (Deep) Listening: Be willing to take in what we hear and change.

4. Inquiry and Reflection: Ask questions that’ll delve deeper into topics that concern us, and gain more understanding of ourselves as well as others.

After looking at the components of a dialogue, can you imagine what would happen if such an exchange occured between two politicians of opposing parties? What if they cease to obsess over winning and losing for an hour or two, and instead sit down as compassionate human beings, and collaborate to find common understanding? Of course, debates can be useful in some situations in politics, such as getting policies passed when the focus of the debate is the efficiency of a well-researched proposal instead of something subjective devised on a whim. However, I believe it’s more productive to have a heartfelt conversation between two parties before battling about whose policy is better. Maybe in a more ideal world, both won’t even need to debate, either, after coming to a satisfactory consensus on a bipartisan policy.

That being said, I’d like to reiterate that dialogue isn’t useful only in politics; in fact, the essence of Bohm Dialogue is common understanding in interpersonal relationships. When you put aside your assumptions and bring your whole self into a person-to-person interaction, you’ll become more open to new ideas and find it easier to connect with people. So why don’t you try engaging in dialogue with someone today?


Image credits: X X

If you would like to write for Her Campus Mount Holyoke, or if you have any questions or comments for us, please email [email protected].