The following paragraphs may provide an explanation for dialogue. In conversation I frequently make a reference to dialogue and make a distinction between dialogue and discussion.

Dialogue is a learning conversation between two or more people. Learning conversations are based on each party seeking information and a new level of understanding. This is greatly facilitated by asking questions. At least three questions with all manner of variation should be a part of the mental tools at work in a learning conversation: 1. What do you mean? 2. How do you know? 3. What difference does it make? With these questions it becomes possible to think together and advance understanding. The result can be an evolutionary learning conversation that reaches new heights.

Notice that all of these questions are open ended questions. That is the questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. The response to the questions means that information has to be provided. Explaining what you mean requires definition of terms and elaboration on details of an assertion. Similarly for the other two fundamental questions. Each response can elicit additional questions so that a listener can better understand the speaker’s point of view or purpose.

Dialogue only works when all parties are seeking understanding. Where questions are hostile or attempting to trap the speaker into a position, the exchange begins to degenerate into a discussion and potential for learning is diminished or even lost entirely. Discussion shares lexical roots with concussion and percussion. The prefix “dis” is a negation. The result is that in discussion, people typically talk past one another. Each attempts to guess a point of view based on what has been said or asserted. The result is conflict with little intent or opportunity for improving knowledge. The exchange begins to resemble an interrogation akin to a legal proceeding.

The idea of dialogue is often attributed to the writing of the Austrian-Israeli philosopher and Rabbi Martin Buber. Buber’s writing elaborated on how we cultivate our being as humans through a focus on what he called “I and Thou” relationship. The very act of choosing this relationship subjectifies those involved and individuals move from objectification to subjects of worth and dignity in the eyes, mind and heart of another. Understanding the place and position of another human is a growth process for the participating parties. Buber believed that this could not happen in the absence of dialogue. For Buber we exist in dialogue while living personally and collectively in a very complex world of ideas and meanings.

Other practitioners have enlarged this basic relationship to affording space for larger groups. If you are interested in advancing your understanding of dialogue, you may find help from the writings of Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline and William Isaacs, Dialogue; The Art of Thinking Together