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 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 [1. I use the word dialog here to mean a line of speech as distinct from dialogue, which is the mode of transformative communication.] is a contrived example, but it is fully based on my own experience in participating in dialogic processes. I would not hesitate to suggest that this experience, perhaps with some elements implicit instead of explicitly constructed, is a wide-spread human experience, at least within my own culture.

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 and space, willingness and good faith.

This line of dialog also contains all of the conditions I have suggested are present in an emerging dialogue. I believe that, in this example, 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. By stepping into the separated dialogical space, the participants are able to also step into a space where they can reflect on the context outside of that space.

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 theatre, for example, the doors to the house may close, the lights may dim, and a curtain may open; all are ritual actions marking qualitative time and space. In dialogue, I believe the marker of ritual may be subtler, such as a way of speaking, a touch on a shoulder or a request to move the conversation to another location. In speaking about paganism, Ronald Hutton (2000) 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” (p x).

Enacting an enabling dialogical space is in part about marking the time and space as qualitatively one 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, 2004a), 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 cited in Webster, 1993, ¶ 6).

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 as in Webster’s argument, a divinity being evoked in ritual or the presence of a transformative process such as dialogue, the eternal object that exists out of normal time is evoked through ritual action that signals the transition into an enabling dialogical space. This is also van Gennep’s “liminality” where normal rules and roles are suspended so that these rules and roles can be examined and evaluated (1960).

In an enabling dialogical space, the willingness and good faith of the participants places existing hierarchy in a subservient relationship to the emerging dialogue, or transformative dialogic process. Senge‘s (1994) view was that hierarchy is a core dysfunction that hinders the emergence of dialogue. To some extent, hierarchy is not eliminated but suspended, as in Bohm’s (1996) 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 December 10, 2006
Tags: The Fifth Principle of Dialogue

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