At the heart of my personal practice of being and becoming in the world is my study of dialogue.

My working definition of dialogue is that it is a transformative process of communication that is most likely to emerge from an enabling dialogical space; that creates a dynamic equilibrium between both group & individual, and conformity & creativity; and that results in the conditions of re-humanization of the other and the self, suspension of judgment, a search for shared meaning and connecting to a larger context. I further hold that, while not necessary for dialogue to emerge, that dialogue is best when it is also characterized by an explicit intentionality toward the enabling dialogical space, crossing thresholds to hear what is difficult or dangerous to hear and a radical inclusivity that always seeks to reciprocity with additional voices and stories.

While I definitely feel that dialogue is a natural mode of communication for humans, and can arise spontaneously, I do feel that the importance of a time and place (linking to Aristotle's Rhetoric discussion of Kairos, an appropriate time and place), intentionality (meaning mostly the willingness), and good faith - these four to me form the criteria from which dialogue emerges. The more these four are present, the more likely dialogue will emerge. Once dialogue has emerged, the qualities of suspension, re-humanizing, connecting to something larger, and search for shared meaning should be observed.

Unfortunately, I believe that the crossing of thresholds, the radical inclusivity, is not required for dialogue to emerge and therefore is often missed. Without radical inclusivity dialogue will be a tool which creates hierarchy, difference and will disconnect people instead of connect them.

Incomplete meaning can be made from limited experiences. Partial wholes can be connected. Participants can connect with each other and still deny the humanity of the Other. Suspension can occur without transformation.

Dialogue is an emergent process. Dialogue emerges within an enabling environment that requires time and space. Participants must be willing, but can learn to be able. Dialogue includes the idea of suspension, or making space for alternate opinions and views by suspending judgment about others. The process of dialogue is one where the participants slowly are able to remove their personae and get to the core of what they believe and feel about various issues that may be different than those of other participants. One of the primary components of Dialogue is a search for shared meaning. The removal of personae and the search for shared meaning are a revealing of the essential interconnectedness and shared humanity of the participants.

I believe that dialogue is a natural mode of communication that has perhaps its most essential expression when one person asks another for a “real” conversation. Imagine, if you will, two people going about their everyday activities, when one notices the other to be troubled, perhaps because of the way the other is speaking or reacting:

A: “You seem troubled. Let us stop what we are doing, sit down and you can tell me what is really going on.”

I admit that this dialog is a contrived example, but it is fully based on my own experience in participating in dialogical processes. I would not hesitate to suggest that this experience, perhaps with some elements implicit instead of explicitly constructed, is close to a universal human experience.

In this simple act, there reside some fundamental, essential building blocks of what I call an enabling dialogical space. There is an attempt to remove what follows from the normal, mundane actions that came before, entering into qualitative time & space. There is an implicit statement of safety and honesty that signifies an expression and expectation of good faith by the participants. And, by asking for and engaging in a special action, the people involved are both expressing willingness to participate. These four elements, I believe, are the essential foundation of transformative processes: qualitative time & space, good faith and willingness.

This line of dialog also contains all of the conditions I have suggested are present in an emergent dialogue. By framing the conversation as between two real and present people, “you can tell me,” the initiator has started to affirm the essential humanity of the participants, and engaged in a process to re-humanize the other and the self. By asking the other for what is “really going on” the initiator has suggested they will suspend their own notions to make space for the other. By initiating this special mode of communication, the participants are engaged on a search for shared understanding, of shared meaning. By framing this as an opportunity to collectively determine what is “really going on” as distinct from and discerned through the ordinary, these participants are attempting to frame their existence as part of a whole that is greater than themselves and connected to a more universal context than the one to which they are ordinarily connected.

Further, in this simple act, there is a kind of ritual action, a marker that consecrates the actions that follow. One person evokes this space through a ritualized action that grounds the participants and signifies that something special, something out of the ordinary, is going to occur. By ritual action, I mean an act meant to consecrate the conversation. In speaking about paganism, Ronald Hutton offers a definition of ritual and an important explanation of consecration:

“For ‘ritual’ I adopt Clifford Geertz’s lovely definition, of ‘consecrated action’; expanded to signify formal, dramatic, and usually stylized action. In many ways the essence of all modern paganism is consecration; the attempt to make persons, and places, and objects feel more sacred, more invested with inner power and meaning which connects the apparent to the non-apparent world.” (Hutton, 2000, p x)

Enacting an enabling dialogical space is in part about marking the time & space in which transformation is to occur and greater meaning is to be found. I suggest that dialogue is a transformative process that takes place within a, perhaps subtly, ritualized and consecrated space.

Moreover, I believe that any transformative process, not just dialogue, built on the foundation of an enabling dialogical space is likely to be efficacious and to result in the emergence of some transformation whether the process enacted in that space is nominally successful or not. An enabling dialogical space is in no small way a theory about creating places where transformation can occur, and this has clear connections to enabling the processes of dialogue and the theatrical experience as I have explored (Bell, 2002), the engagement paradigm (Axelrod, 2002), principled negotiation (Fisher & Ury, 1981), certainly not exhaustively, of communitas in Turner:

“Communitas, or social antistructure [is] a relational quality full of unmediated communication, even communion, between definite and determinate identities, which arises spontaneously in all kinds of groups, situations, and circumstances. It is a liminal phenomenon which combines the qualities of lowliness, sacredness, homogeneity, and comradeship” in contrast to ordinarily prevalent social structures. [Turner 1978:250] (via Webster 1993 “Changing Society through Ritual” pdf)

As outlined by Webster (1993), a key component of ritual, and thus of transformational spaces, is in placing the existing determinant order, or hierarchical relationship between participants, in a subservient relationship with a dominant symbol, whether in Webster’s case that is a divinity being evoked in ritual or the presence of a transformative process such as dialogue, which is the eternal object that exists out of normal time, evoked through, what I have theorized as, an enabling dialogical space.

So, while I whole-heartedly agree with Senge‘s (1994) view that hierarchy is a core dysfunction that hinders the emergence of dialogue, in an enabling dialogical space it is the willingness and good faith of the participants within qualitative time & space that places existing hierarchy in a subservient relationship to the emerging dialogue, or transformative process. To some extent, hierarchy is thus not eliminated but suspended, as in Bohm’s (2000) suspension as a function in dialogue. This suspension reinforces the function of dialogue where participants are not forced to become what they are not, but are led to become more than they are, as in any initiatory process, or rite of passage, or transformational processes in general.

Posted by John Bell on June 8, 2006
Tags: Putting Community In

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