Dialogue--A Good Conversation

Interview with Robert Anderson

Robert Anderson is professor of communication and a member of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. He was a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge in 1997-1998 and 2004-2005.

SGI Quarterly: If dialogue is such a good thing, why isn't there more of it?

Robert Anderson: We are very good at saying that dialogue is a good thing--there's almost nobody who doesn't bow slightly in the direction of dialogue. But dialogue takes real effort. The prerequisite or, rather, ingredients of dialogue--the idea of extending your commitment enough to listen to somebody else, to listen very carefully and to not simply be waiting for a pause in which you can counteract what they have said--these are not things that people are willing to practice regularly.

While people use the term a lot, "we need some dialogue here...," what they often mean is "I need something that suits my purposes better--we need a more effective method of getting our way," and that's not what dialogue is about. So there's a lot of reference to it, but not much of it.

Also, when people come together around a complicated or troublesome subject, they tend to want immediate action--some decision must be taken, or we must have a policy, or let's make a new law--and that takes up all their energy. So the dialogue part that might better precede that and give clarity to the relationships that would work in the negotiation, to the formulas that might work in the policy--that clarity doesn't come because that element of dialogue isn't done. And this is because it's hard work, especially for people in authority, who are used to being heard. If you have authority and power, you are more used to exercising it than suspending it in order to listen.

Process vs. Product

SGIQ: So focusing on an end result or purpose can be detrimental to good dialogue?

Anderson: A purpose is important, but sometimes it becomes too important and the expectations are too high. That is what I call one of the enemies of dialogue. People normally wouldn't come together without a purpose, but if the purpose is too focused, then dialogue becomes more like negotiation; that element of openness and the unscripted quality get compromised by purpose. If expectations are too high, then I am skeptical that dialogue can take place.

Dialogue and negotiation are often confused, or these words are substituted for each other. If we remember the best conversations we've had, and we generalize that, perhaps that comes closest to defining what dialogue is. When the purpose of dialogue is over-determined, it becomes more like negotiation. Dialogue and negotiation are complementary to one another and they can be supportive.

I think it's interesting to look at the issue of negotiation and dialogue in the frightening context of what's been happening with the North Korean situation recently, with the apparent nuclear tests.

The setting in which dialogue occurs is important: the design of the Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver establishes an inclusive, non-heirarchical atmosphere to facilitate equal participation  [Simon Fraser University, Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue]

As I understand it, the six-party talks can't just be negotiation, because at times there's not much to negotiate. So the talk becomes somewhat closer to dialogue. I think the six parties must be learning to listen to each other, and that's why we should pay attention. It seems that while sometimes there's not much room for negotiation, there is some room for conversation, which is what dialogue is really about.

I am sure that if North Korea does eventually get nuclear weapons in a deliverable form, then the issue of what kind of relationship has been established among the six, and whether dialogue can occur among them, and even whether negotiation can occur, will become really crucial. So if there is dialogue on the margins of those negotiations, which there apparently is, then that may be the mechanism that gets us through in the long run without catastrophe.

It's a work in progress, but I can't imagine any serious person who says that talking about North Korea is just a waste of time because there's no change in anyone's behavior. In all the other cases of negotiation around situations like this one, the actors themselves often realize that they may not be getting anywhere in negotiating terms, but they're creating and maintaining an environment for dialogue in which negotiation might be possible one day.

Being Heard

SGIQ: Do approaches to dialogue differ from culture to culture?

Anderson: The underlying idea of what makes satisfactory dialogue varies by culture. It even varies within cultures. Here at the Centre we're working on a "companion book for dialogue," a kind of reader's world tour of dialogue in different cultural situations.

For example, in Nigeria there are ways of bringing people together in tense situations, and there are certain kinds of ritual opening, with proverbs and statements, but within a minute or two the participants are into something that is dialogic. Our Centre is looking to collect symbols of dialogue from different cultures, and we would be interested to hear from people who know of these. A classic one is the "talking stick," a local example. It entitles you to stand and speak, and the others are expected to listen.

We've found examples all over the world of this clear model of listening and talking, with great emphasis on respectful listening and attentiveness. Even where people are opposed, cultures try to establish an atmosphere of being heard, an atmosphere of a free play of ideas over which they disagree. And usually there is some key person or persons who have an influence on the atmosphere, an intermediary. Many cultures anticipate difficulties and have models for approaching them.

The models are different, but the crucial thing is that where people have perhaps been previously silenced, here they can speak and they are heard; or they are expected to go away feeling they have been heard. That's a crucial measure. The expectations might not be much higher than that, but there is this atmosphere of listening, which clearly has a very therapeutic dimension. Of course, it's not meant just as therapy, it's meant as trying to reach somewhere or reach something among people who haven't been able to get there. But there is this quasi-therapeutic quality where people think: "Well, I don't think they're going to change their minds, but I do feel that I was heard, and I was respectfully heard, and I was recognized."

[R. Maro/]

SGIQ: Is there a difference in the ways men and women have dialogue?

Anderson: Linguists say that when women are talking to women, if they already know each other, there's a more tapestry- or textile-like quality to the conversation; the parts are woven together into a whole. On the other hand, studies show that men, even if they know each other, tend to create a series of monologue statements that connect but don't weave together in the same way as women do. There is much research to do on this question. But I think we have to remember that the cultural differences here would be large.

SGIQ: Can you give an example of the type of dialogue you have at the Centre?

Anderson: Sometimes we have very lofty subjects--for example, the Millennium Development Goals. Jeffrey Sachs came to the Centre and people spoke to him about these goals. These were all people with expertise, so the trick was to get them beyond talking to Sachs about data and to get everyone talking and listening to each other about goals.

But then we have other kinds of dialogue. There has been a string of gangland-style killings of young Indo-Canadian men around the drug trade here in Vancouver, so together with the police forces I organized a dialogue with the victims' families, with some young men who had been in the game but had left it, some community elders, some intelligence officers--a highly informed group but no one comfortable about talking in public. So we got them together in that space and got them to talk to each other and listen to each other.

We dispersed the voices around the room so that the intelligence officers sat next to the ex-drug dealers, the teenage girls next to the priests--so as to break up the picture of who is authorized to speak about this subject. We wanted to make it clear that there are people who know a lot about its dimensions but they don't usually speak, and they were in the room, and finally they spoke.

Taking Risks

SGIQ: Does dialogue need to involve risks in order for it to be meaningful?

Anderson: If we have a conversation about millennium goals, and there isn't anyone in the room who has malaria or who doesn't have running water, then there's a kind of detachment about the topic. And while it may be good and important to discuss it, it doesn't have the same bite, and we wouldn't say there is the same risk as for the people in the gangland killings example, where certain families have lost their sons. One girl sitting next to me said, "I know the killer of my brother, he drives past my school almost every day." This is because no one would testify against him. That took courage. That's a risk for her to say that, especially in that space with those people. And it was meaningful. Actually, her statement shifted the tone in the room, and people began to talk much more realistically, less indirectly.

Sometimes I think that the conveners of dialogue, people like me, who do the choreography part, have to take some risks, too, to bring the different sides together. Otherwise, it can be like the rehearsal of old platitudes and clichés. There are important qualities to repeating truths, but sometimes getting people to take a risk, to say something direct and fresh, is a big step. That said, we need to have dialogues on the Millennium Development Goals, too, involving people for whom there is a risk.

And dialogue is not supposed to be harmonic. We shouldn't think of it as being without the expression of disagreement. We have to be ready for different perspectives; we have to be ready to engage with people that we don't normally enjoy hearing.

SGIQ: How do we know that a dialogue has taken place?

Anderson: Well, we don't know unless we speak to others. We may have some intuitive sense in our bodies that this was good, that I've been heard, I've been listening carefully and I learned something. But it's really important to check and try to uncover whether other people feel at all the same way, or not.

I think the easier thing is to know when it hasn't. That's when people show that they're not satisfied. So it's a tricky thing, but it's a very social thing. It's not just an individual judgment.

A meeting place in Mali  [Margot Haag/Das Fotoarchiv/Uniphoto]