What Is Dialogue?

Cherry blossoms

To help commemorate our 30th anniversary year of 2023, we asked some scholar friends of ours to share personal reflections with us on the meaning of peace, learning, and dialogue. Here are five thought-provoking answers to the question: What is Dialogue?

From Jim Garrison, Professor Emeritus, Foundations of Education, Virginia Tech University

I will leave the idea of dialogue undefined and simply offer some loosely related reflections focusing on dialogues across differences. 

Dialogue is not a conduit where we upload information then send it down the pipeline to be downloaded on the other end. Instead of being what mathematicians call a “two-term” relation, dialogue is fundamentally at least a three-term relation, involving not just the interactions of two people but also the meaning they are trying to share. Such meanings involve feelings, thoughts, imagination, action, and more. We must always remember that dialogue is an embodied activity. 

For understanding to occur there must be an agreement in action among the participants regarding the third term. In the course of a dialogue, the parties to the dialogue as well as the meanings conveyed are subject to creative transformation. Even placing an order at a restaurant requires negotiating meaning. Dialogue is always a co-creative activity, although the co-creation is often hard to detect. 

Co-creativity is especially important in dialogues across differences—cultural, racial, gender, and so on. Consider culture. To become a member of a culture whether national or local is to acquire, among many other things, embodied habits of action, moral norms, cognitive beliefs, attitudes, values, and feelings toward the world including those identifying cultural “insiders” versus “outsiders.” As a consequence of such enculturation participants in dialogues across difference may have very little in common. 

It is especially important, then, for dialogues across differences to be co-creative. Oftentimes creating meaning together can provide a basis for subsequently understanding and appreciating each other. Exchanging gifts can have a similar effect. Extending this idea we can see that sharing cultural creations such as music, painting, and such can facilitate dialogue. Of itself, art expresses meaning beyond words, but by engaging the arts one is often brought to words. 

From Donna Hicks, Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, and Author, Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict

Dialogue—one that is rooted in a mutual recognition and acceptance of dignity—creates the opportunity to experience each other’s value and vulnerability, promoting authentic human connections.  

From Bill Schubert, Professor Emeritus of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Illinois at Chicago 

I see learning, dialogue, and peace as building cumulatively on each other, any one of them needing the other two for a movement toward a continuously growing Wholeness, especially when perceived through the perspectives of Daisaku Ikeda and his mentors, Josei Toda and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. It is my hope that educators should strive to inspire students by making explicit that they encourage these pursuits in all of their experiences, not only in school. 

Dialogue seems to me to be a way to make learning more social, by human or other organisms joining together to construct knowledge, ideas, and understandings. Ikeda’s book-length dialogues (e.g., with Arnold Toynbee, Linus Pauling. Vincent Harding, Elise Boulding, Tu Weiming, and John Dewey (through Jim Garrison and Larry Hickman, among many others) illustrate getting to know other participants well and building on their strengths to create values that none of them could have created alone. Dialogue, as such, is a kind of interaction and leads to a symbiotic coalescence through building a unity from a diversity of learning. As more participants join this kind of dialogic encounter, they grow past their separatism in synergy that overcomes their separatism and contributes to a Stream of Goodness that, if nourished through love can reach toward justice.

We travel through the words we share.

Sarah Wider

From Sarah Wider, Professor of English, Emeritus, Colgate University

Dialogue—a word that takes on greater and deeper meaning the more we seek its practice. It asks for our action. How do we engage in this world-opening, peace-building work that resides in language—the most precious and also the most terrible tool humans have devised.  Sounds in the air, marks on a page: words heal; words harm. They begin wars. They choose the easy way of violence rather than the arduous path of peace. They dictate death. Before the trigger is pulled, violence coiled in language itself. Humans have often surrounded themselves in a caustic echo chamber where no words but their own are heard. Listening shrivels to a dead semblance of its full self. Curiosity finds no place where it can truly seek, and wonder, and question. Imagination sickens into a narrow story of fear, negating, excluding, denying.  

And yet, words are so much larger than human failure. Listening is always just one moment from being brought back to the heart among us. Curiosity waits to express itself in wonder—the delight and joy that we can be and be together in world exchanging, world changing thought. Imagination again begins to breathe, affirm, encourage, empathize. Dialogue is the way through. At its most elemental it means “through the word”: dia = through + logos = word. We travel through the words we share, taking up language as the ever-ready tool for change, for transformation, for heart and world healing.  

Words can and do bring great joy: they recognize, acknowledge, affirm, encourage.  “I see you.”  I honor your work. I respect and amplify what you do to bring justice, to restore land, to heal wounds—wounds that often seem like they can never be healed. They invite: let us work on this together. What strengths do you bring? What strengths can I bring? How can this problem be met through our collaboration, our cooperation, our joy in mending and making and bringing into being the world we imagine. Let us listen, let us reflect, let us think harder and deeper and wider, with wonder that we can weave these strong threads of peace-making into a place where we are.  Where kind-willed existence—human, nonhuman, land, water, sky—can speak their wisdom and their deep hope for change, for transformation into a world that knows peace as its center.   

From Winston Langley, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science and International Relations, and former Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Massachusetts Boston

Our country, the Earth, is defined by many different cultural traditions (including non-human nature) which, in turn, embody multiple beliefs, patterns, practices, values, and commitments. These different cultural traditions (economic, linguistic, political, religious), exist over time as the individuals, groups, and the institutions that represent them. And these individuals, groups, and institutions demand respect, not merely (as often is said) our toleration. Without this respect, human beings are condemned to a lifestyle of domination, under which one or a few states or other institutions impose their cultural way of being on others, and, by so doing, undermine all opportunities for mutual trust, respect, and development.

Resulting from this domination, invariably, have been adverse discrimination, mobilized hatred, repression, religious persecution, wars, “ethnic cleansing,” genocide, torture, and the unending progression of human insecurity. Worse, deepening poverty, the degradation of human beings and the environment, the subversion of every aspect of the normative order, including the authority of institutions, all develop and expand, and the culture of domination, including war, moves to assume
control of human life.

Cultures of domination cannot heal themselves, and they never have produced peace. In the name of peace, national security, economic well-being, liberty, and civilizing missions, among other lofty values, they have but morally and psychologically corrupted their practitioners, and disrespected and debased their victims. In the process, they have generated ways to further domination, increased the lethality of swords to pursue wider and deeper destruction, and “normalized” the horrors of human and environmental destruction.

As such, one must find another source from which the diversity of cultural traditions can come to be mutually respected and celebrated, and the miserable aims, which end with the narrowest version of the self, transcended. That source, made famous by Daisaku Ikeda, is dialogue.

It is something present in every society, often taken for granted. It is the process by which human beings, at the inter-personal and inter-group levels, enter into conversation as an avenue to, among other things, change the dynamics of domination-subordination, explore mutual revelation and discovery, and invite common empathy. Dialogue becomes an agent by which one discovers oneself in others—their wretchedness, despair, and anger, as well as their delight, hope, and joy. It is likewise the method by which reconciliation can overcome estrangement, alienation, rejection, and hostility, and pave the path to human wholeness.