The Magic of Dialogue

The Magic of Dialogue

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Real dialogue is more than just talk—it’s work. But the payoffs are incredible. One of America’s best listeners shows how it’s done.

In philosopher Martin Buber’s classic work I and Thou, he suggests that in authentic dialogue something far deeper than ordinary conversation is going on. The I-Thou interaction implies a genuine openness of each individual to the concerns of the other. In such dialogue, “I” do not, while talking with you, selectively tune our views I disagree with, nor do I busy myself marshaling arguments to rebut you while only half attending to what you have to say. Nor do I seek to reinforce my own prejudices. Instead, I fully take in your viewpoint, engaging with it in the deepest sense of the term. You do likewise. Each of us internalizes the view of the other to enhance our mutual understanding.

Buber voiced the stunning insight that, apart from its obvious practical value for problem-solving, dialogue express an essential aspect of the human spirit. He knew that dialogue is a way of being. In Buber’s philosophy, life itself is a form of meeting, and dialogue is the place where we meet. In dialogue, we penetrate behind the polite superficialities and defenses in which we habitually armor ourselves. We listen and respond to one another with a kind of authenticity that forges a bond between us.

By performing the seemingly simple act of responding empathetically to others and in turn being heard by them, Buber observed, we transcend the constricting confines of the self. Instead of saying, “you or me,” you hear yourself saying, “you and me.” The act of reaching beyond the self to relate to others in dialogue is profound human yearning. If it were less common-place we would realize what a miracle it is.

Missing Skills:

If the yearning for dialogue is universal, why is it so rare? Because it calls upon skills that impose a rigorous discipline on participants. Most people have not taken the time and effort to develop these skills. The reason is not lack of motivation. People have ample incentive to acquire the skills of dialogue.

They have not done so for several reasons:

Models are lacking. Television, for example, resorts to the conflicting debate format when presenting politics and other serious subjects because of its entertainment value.

The skills of dialogue have not been clearly identified, so people who wish to acquire them do not know what they are.

There are no obvious consequences of failure to develop the skills. If you tried to swim of ski without knowing how, your lack of skill would be swiftly and dramatically obvious, perhaps fatally so. If you fail at dialogue, it is not at all obvious that the reason is lack of dialogic skill, or even that a failure has occurred.

Significantly, success at dialogue is much more self-evident than failure. When dialogue is done well, the results can be extraordinary: Long-standing stereotypes dissolved, mistrust overcome, mutual understanding achieved, visions shaped and grounded in shared purpose, people previously at odds with one another aligned on objectives and strategies, new common ground discovered, new perspective and insights gained, new levels of creativity stimulated, and bonds of community strengthened.

I do not want to overstate the benefits of dialogue. Though I believe it sometimes has almost magical properties, it is not a panacea for all the problems that ail us. Faith in the ability of talk to solve problems is very American, and to some cynics, a sign of our cultural naivete. It’s easy to poke fun at serious, well-meaning attempts at dialogue that miscarry, as many unfortunately do.

As our society becomes increasingly fragmented and pluralistic, we’re likely to misunderstand one another more and more. Ordinary discussion is not powerful enough to break through these misunderstandings. We will need increasingly to resort to the more potent resources of dialogue. All of us will need to know how to initiate and carry out spontaneous dialogue.

Constant readiness is the key to success. You never know when an opportunity for spontaneous dialogue will arise. If you are not ready to take advantage of it, the opportunity will pass you by. Worse yet, you may get drawn into a dialogue that will turn sour, leaving the bad taste of failure.

Constant readiness means that you know the strategies for doing dialogue successfully, and feel comfortable in applying the most important ones (See Sidebar: “Strategies for Successful Dialogue”). For example, you understand the core requirements for dialogue—treating the other as an equal in every respect (part of what Buber meant by “thou”), being willing and able to listen empathetically, and being willing and able to bring everyone’s assumptions—including yours—into the open without becoming judgmental.

Should the need arise you must be psychologically prepared to perform an act of empathy—which requires both self-confidence and the lowering of defenses. If you are in full battle gear, as many of us are these days in our encounters with a self-absorbed world, it is easy to interpret an act of empathy as a loss of face, a deficit of macho. I suspect that most opportunities to initiate dialogue are lost because participants are not psychologically prepared to take this first critical step.

You must also be prepared to confront misunderstandings through focusing on assumptions—both your own and others. Misunderstanding arise from many sources—from friction between subcultures to differences in interests. The most complex of all are transference-driven distortions. When you misunderstand people from other subcultures, you may be transferring to them attributes, feelings, and beliefs that are part of your own subculture. When you misunderstand people from within your own subculture, you may be transferring to them interests and feelings more appropriate to the ghosts of your past than to them.

Test yourself:

Are you ready for dialogue? Test yourself by asking yourself some searching questions. Suppose, for example, you are an executive in a meeting attended by people of varied ranks within your organization—some who report to you, others who hold a higher position. A discussion is in progress regarding a project that did not work out according to plan. Lots of criticism is being bandied about. Are you prepared to volunteer that you accept some responsibility because of erroneous assumptions you had made, and then to make them explicit? If not, you may want to do more to prepare yourself for dialogue.

Or suppose you are a married man and you have just had a quarrel with your wife. You tell a friend who then asks you, “After your quarrel, did your wife feel you had listened fully and sympathetically to her side of the story?” If your answer is “no” or “I’m not sure,” the chances are you are not quite ready to enter into dialogue with your wife.

Or suppose you are a woman with a younger sister whom you habitually treat as not quite equal to you in experience or smarts. Ask yourself if your attitude toward her reflects the person she is today, or whether you are still reacting to her as she was in the past. To prepare yourself for dialogue with her, you may want to divest yourself of some of the baggage of the past.

One should not underestimate how difficult it is to break ingrained habits of not-listening, to break out of your wall of guarded reserve in order to offer acts of empathy, or to develop the skill of digging out your own and other people’s transferences in a non-judgmental fashion. But I’m convinced that everyone can learn to do dialogue, and that each one who does gives a gift to us all.

The Old Bull and the Young Bull

Clarifying Assumptions

A misunderstanding has threatened to wreck the personal and business relationship between two executives, a retiring CEO and his younger successor. The old CEO is chairing his last official meeting. For weeks he has been hinting that he would like to preside over a special governance committee. He now brings up the question of the committee assignment before the full meeting. All present look toward the new CEO, who suggests they postpone the decision. The older man feels a spasm of angry resentment and assumes his old friend thinks he is over the hill.

The younger man is nursing his own set of assumptions. He knows the retiring CEO has trouble letting go and suspects that he wants the governance committee job to maintain his control from behind the scenes. Everyone except the old and new CEO leaves the room.

The old CEO swallows his bitterness and asks, “Wayne, am I correct in assuming that you think I’m not up to the job of managing the committee?”

The new CEO bursts out laughing, “If you think that, you must think I’m the world’s biggest hypocrite,” Sensing the older man’s discomfort, Wayne continues quietly, “No, Lewis, I don’t think you are losing it. My fear is that you would do too good a job, and I would never get a chance to run the show on my own terms. I need my chance to try out my own management style.”

The tension slowly dissipates, and the old CEO admits, “I don’t understand why, but I’m as anxious about this retirement as I’ve ever been about anything. Frankly, the effect on you was the furthest thing from my mind.”

The rift has been healed. Outwardly, not much has changed. The old CEO is still apprehensive about the future. The new CEO has yet to make up his mind about whether to give the older man the assignment he wants. But somehow everything has changed and the ultimate decision, whatever it may be, is now likely to be made for the right reasons.

Are We Doing Dialogue Yet?

Most people talk about the four d’s—dialogue, debate, deliberation, and discussion—interchangeably. Fortunately, practitioners of genuine dialogue have learned how to distinguish dialogue from other forms of conversation. The most revealing distinctions are those that contrast dialogue with debate. This chart is adapted from the writings of Mark Gerzon, one of our most gifted practitioners.


  • Assuming that there is a right answer, and that you have it

  • Combative: participants attempt to prove the other side wrong

  • About winning

  • Listening to find flaws and make counter-arguments

  • Defending assumptions as truth

  • Critiquing the other side’s position

  • Defending one’s own views against those of others

  • Searching for flaws and weaknesses in other positions

  • Seeking a conclusion or vote that ratifies your position


  • Assuming that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they craft a new solution

  • Collaborative: participants work together toward common understanding

  • About exploring common ground

  • Listening to understand, find meaning and agreement

  • Revealing assumptions for re-evaluation

  • Re-examining all positions

  • Admitting that other’s thinking can improve on one’s own

  • Searching for strengths and value in others’ positions

  • Discovering new options, not seeking closure

Strategies for Successful Dialogue

Here in compressed summary form is a checklist of strategies for successful dialogue.*

  1. Check for the presence of all three core requirements of dialogue—equality, empathy,openness—and learn how to introduce missing ones. This is the bedrock strategy: Without it you do not have dialogue.

  2. Focus on common interests, not the divisive ones.

  3. Keep dialogue and decision-making separate and compartmentalized.

  4. Clarify assumptions that lead to subculture distortions.

  5. Offer your own assumptions before speculating on those of others.

  6. Use specific cases to raise general issues.

  7. Focus on conflicts between value systems, not persons.

  8. When appropriate, express the emotions that accompany strongly held values.

  9. Initiate dialogue through an act of empathy.

  10. Be sure trust exists before addressing transference distortions.

  11. Where applicable, identify mistrust as the real source of misunderstandings.

  12. Err on the side of including people who disagree.

  13. Encourage relationships in order to humanize transactions.

  14. Expose old scripts to a reality check.

  15. Minimize the level of mistrust before pursuing practical objectives.

*Daniel Yankelovich's book, The Magic of Dialogue, explains each of these strategies in detail.

Adapted from The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Simon & Schuster, August 1999). Daniel Yankelovich's previous books include Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World (Syracuse University Press) and New Rules: Self-fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down(Transaction Publishers).


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