Enabling enabling dialogical space

Anathematic and antithetical to dialogue is hierarchy. Dialogue itself is disabled by agendas and intentions, a form of functional hierarchy which attempts to preference This creates an apparent paradox in creating dialogue, because the intention to create dialogue disables dialogue. I believe that paradox is resolved when one is able to focus on the intention of creating a dialogical environment from which dialogue can naturally and organically emerge out of dialogic activity, not in the creation of the dialogue itself. Therefore, it becomes essential to the emergence of dialogue that one is intentional and active in developing the enabling environment and engaging in the dialogic activity of building relationships.

In other words, focus not on enabling dialogue, but on enabling the enabling dialogical space.

Intention is a mild example of hierarchy, but one that is enough to disable the emergence of dialogue if it becomes a form of bad faith. Even the best of intentions can become impositions on others, a kind of social engineering that meddles in the lives of others. If one enters an enabling dialogical space with an intention to dialogue then one can obviate a shared development of relationship with the other participants by prejudicing that environment with preconceived, unilateral notions of relationship. One’s intention to dialogue becomes a barrier to seeing the other participants as equals in the process of what emerges. In this sense, hierarchy and intention to an outcome are examples of a lack of good faith. It is in the intention to create an enabling space with those willing to enter into it together that one finds an opportunity from which dialogue may emerge without imposition.

Technique, theory and philosophy

I hope that this study of dialogue offers a way of acting in the world, a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world. By this I mean that I hope to offer a technique of dialogue that is a practical tool. I also intend to develop a theory of dialogue. Also, more abstractly, I hope to explain the philosophy of dialogue that is implied by the technique and theory. The three layers of my definition of dialogue offer a technology for enabling dialogical spaces, an archetypal theory of dialogic process, and a philosophy of emergent dialogue as world-view.

In early 2004, a colleague and I developed a survey, based on the early formation of the archetypal model of dialogic process. Using what may turn out to be an overly complex interpretation, we showed a slight statistical correspondence in our limited sample of respondents between the archetypal roles and the personality types of Myers-Briggs.

In 2004, I used an early working definition, which was comprised of the theory of enabling dialogical space and the theory of dialogical gifts, to evaluate several places in Ireland.

Since 2004, and including the case study in Ireland, I have been using my working definition of dialogue as a framework for design. I am using my working definition to test and develop spaces and processes of engagement that are dialogical. Using the definition as a framework, I am exploring the implications using more specific design questions such as:

How can dialogical environments be created that encourage dialogic process and lead to emergent dialogue for the purpose of building and maintaining community cohesion and identity in the face of adaptive challenges?

I offer these as examples of how my working definition has become for me a practical tool in design of physical and social places, a theoretical model of dialogue and a frame through which to view the world.


Dialogue is a form of communication that potentially emerges from an enabling environment. The enabling environment is characterized by qualitative time and space, willingness and good faith. Dialogue itself is characterized by participants peeling away layers of their personae, suspending their judgment and arriving at their own meaning and by a search for shared meaning. Therefore, since a primary process of dialogue is a change of state within essential liminality, dialogue is fundamentally a complex transformative process.

Atlee (2003) suggests that dialogue is a field characterized primarily by more or less transformative effect. I think this is far too simplistic as a whole definition, and draws the field far too broadly. The transformative nature of a search for shared meaning is not the same as, for example, the transformative process of personal mastery, although they can be informed by each other; and, zen meditation is not dialogue. Although it can be dialogical in some regard, a transformative experience alone cannot in and of itself be dialogue, because dialogue has specific characteristics that differentiate it from other transformative processes.

If transformation is the determination of dialogue then any human that changes is in dialogue. Since the human body is constantly re-generating, there is no point at which the human is not changing, whether they are in communication with another or not. Like Heraclitus’ river, any subsequent sampling includes, necessarily, transformation of thought and idea; correlation suggests but cannot prove causation. Therefore, transformation is a necessary criteria only in as much as the presence of transformation implies the presence of a living entity, and since transformation exists outside of dialogue it cannot be a sufficient condition or dialogue would be omnipresent. I hold that dialogue is a special form of human behaviour and not an omnipresent one, and as transformation occurs without dialogue, I hold that dialogue as interaction between entities cannot be defined merely by transformation.

Here I must point out that by entities I do not necessarily mean only individuals. I hold that entities can be individuals, but that collections of individuals are also organizational entities with behaviours that are not merely an additive sum of the individuals. I also hold that individuals are a collection of psychological entities and that the individual is not merely an additive sum of these psychological entities. Relationships between entities may be some combination of intrapersonal, interpersonal, extrapersonal and superpersonal; and, these relationships are complex and systemic. I believe these dynamic relationships can all be dialogical and have the potential for dialogue.

At the same time, while not simply transformation, dialogue must be something specific or it is not worth talking about. Since I am going to talk about it, I beg the question of what dialogue is specifically. For this purpose, I will offer my working definition.

Toward a poetics of dialogue

In my view, dialogue is an art of communication, a poetic. Dialogue is imaginative, expressive, creative and moreover deeply human. There are specific and useful techniques to dialogue. However, there is also a deep theory and philosophy to dialogue. To the theory and philosophy, the techniques are not merely pointers but practical signs to the presence of praxis. This praxis means there’s more than just the practice of technique. There is a worldview that informs the technique (Bell & Fenske, 2004).

Just as there are specific techniques of rhyme, meter and construction to poetry, there is a structural technique to dialogue that can be practiced. However, the art itself is not just technical mastery, although technical mastery can be phenomenal to behold. The technique is not sufficient to the art. I would also suggest that the technique is also not necessary to the art. I suggest that the method of art, the technique, is neither sufficient nor necessary for the content of art, the art itself. There is an ideal which exists without expression and no expression is complete without being a reference to the ideal.

To me poetics is rhetoric of and from the heart, or whole person, and theatre is imitation and emphasis of life for transformation; dialogue is a communication from the heart which emphasizes transformation.

When I suggest that I am offering a poetic of dialogue I am making an explicit connection to notions inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics. I link dialogue to more than just poetry but rather to a field of communication-as-art that can be mastered. I mean to suggest that dialogue is itself a form of communication that while naturally occurring can also be mastered.

By art, I mean to suggest the meaning of Aristotle as interpreted by Boal, that “Art is the re-creation of the creative principle” (1982). This suggests that art is an iterative system, a set of relationships that modifies itself, self-creates as in the systemic principle of autopoesis. I mean to imply that dialogue is a form of communication that is both a process of transformation and that can create itself, that it naturally occurs.

I am also implicitly making a connection between the art of poetics and the work of design. Working with a vocabulary, within specific constraints, both the designer and the poet have reciprocal relationships with their clients. I am offering an archetypal language of dialogue that can be used artfully, within the constraints of an enabling dialogical space, by a practitioner who is in a reciprocal, interdependent relationship with other practitioners.

I believe that the sufficient and necessary component of an art is an authentic practice, a practice that is, to be sure, enhanced by technique. Dialogue is, I believe, a natural form of communication. However, it is also an art form the quality of which can be more or less enhanced by the authenticity and mastery of the practitioner. It is enough to be willing in engage in dialogic relationships, but the cultivation of dialogic ability in self and others is the next step to building those relationships.

Of course, I also believe that this sufficiency of authenticity to dialogue makes the art of dialogue, in many ways, one that may only ever be an anecdotally verified emergent quality of human behaviour. As a subjective human interpersonal event, it may be possible to see that participants believe that dialogue has occurred, and it may be possible to see indications that a dialogue has emerged; but, to say definitively that dialogue, which is to say that special form of communication, has occurred may not be fully verifiable. I suspect that the most thorough exploration of dialogue may be available through oral history and through the techniques of ethnography and participatory research methodologies.

Dialogue must be more than merely parrhasia, free speech. Dialogue is not dialog, neither merely the ability to speak nor the ability to speak one’s mind. It is not enough that people merely communicate and it is not enough that one merely speak one’s mind. Dialogue is a systemic communication that is neither one-sided nor empty social exchange. While it may be possible for dialogue to emerge in the unlikeliest of places, there are places where this emergence is more likely and places where it is unlikely. There is also the possibility for dialogical space without dialogic process, and there the possibility for dialogic process without dialogue.

The emergence of dialogue from dialogic process within enabling dialogical space is an expression of an art form, a poetics of human relationship that is transformative and reawakening to the essential and interdependent humanity of the participants.