Lately my work in teaching and facilitating skillful conversation has felt more urgent.  I think that some of this urgency has to do with a number of pronounced and disturbing trends I see in American society.

  • We are a country that is increasingly polarized.  Partisan politics and economic disparities divide us more and more.
  • Public discourse at national and local levels is becoming less and less civil as name-calling, manipulation, and screaming gain greater acceptance.
  • Complex issues are frequently reduced to superficial, easy-to-digest media sound-bites.
  • Boundaries in news coverage between fact and opinion are blurring as pundits and spin doctors become our new cultural icons.
  • The national conversation about crucial issues moves too quickly in the direction of  “either/or,” “right/wrong” arguments.
  • Economic uncertainty, terrorism, and the environmental crisis leave many of us seeing the world through a lens of “fear of the other” and “scarcity”
  • The role of the sacred in everyday life — including how we interact and explore differences — is harder and harder to locate

Organizational and community leaders are as susceptible as anyone to being swept up in these trends or in the face of these trends opting to avoid the difficult conversations altogether. How do we model an alternative, even counter-cultural way of being in difficult conversations — one that is grounded in Philosopher Martin Buber’s notion of seeing the other as a Thou rather than an It?

One answer is to integrate some of the principles and disciplines of dialogue into the way we come to everyday conversation. The primary goal of dialogue is to gain mutual understanding.  In dialogue we seek to balances inquiry with advocacy, explore an issue”s true complexity, distinguish facts from assumptions, and affirm differing points of view even when we do not agree with them. Dialogue enables us to explore our strong feelings and reactions to what others say without needing to abandon our convictions and values.

To read more about how principles of dialogue can be integrated into skillful conversation, I recommend a book called Difficult Conversations by Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Douglas Stone.  Another superb resource is The Public Conversations Project, an organization that has pioneered a distinctive approach to dialogue that shifts communication to enhance understanding, repair relationships, and rebuild trust.