A dialogue about dialogue

Written by Max Hardy and Paul Waite

Paul Waite

It’s my pleasure to interview a new friend and colleague Paul Waite who is a ‘dialogue practitioner’ amongst other things. Paul, I know you sometimes refer to this as ‘dialogue for understanding’. Can you tell us what that means?

Thanks Max. As you know, dialogue means different things to different people. Some people think a simple chat to be dialogue, whereas others think dialogue is more formal and focused. By dialogue for understanding, I’m talking about a process which supports a group of people to safely explore their differing perspectives regarding a tricky or contentious issue. It’s not intended to change participant views on the issue, but rather to enable participants to understand how the views of others have been informed by their personal experiences and values. The process can help to build empathy and understanding and, in this age of othering, can help us to reconnect with our shared humanity.

Yes, with so many polarised debates in evidence ‘dialogue for understanding’ is something quite novel, even counter-cultural. I do hear project managers/public servants saying they are pressed for time and need to find solutions fast for a range of issues. How do you respond to people who say that we just don’t have the time for dialogue?’

Yeh, there’s often a sense of urgency and a need to demonstrate action. And that’s fine when you’re dealing with a simple issue or even a complicated issue. However, it is unlikely to bear fruit when dealing with complex or contentious issues. In such cases, dialogue can help to build the relationships and the trust necessary for the participants to work well together. Often, tackling complex or contentious issues requires a diversity of people to work together: community members, service providers, businesses, academics, policy makers and others. Each person brings their own values, experiences, assumptions, priorities and perspectives along – their own ‘truth’. Dialogue can help to create an environment where people are more willing to share their own ‘piece of the truth’ and, more importantly, where they are more willing to listen and synthesise the truth of others. It’s only then that the group has a real chance to break through ‘same old same old’ thinking. So, time invested in dialogue is time well spent.

Speaking of ‘success’ what kinds of benefits or impacts can dialogue make possible? How can it be helpful to an organisation or community? Do you have an example you could share?

The relationships, mutual understanding and trust which can be created through dialogue are valuable in and of themselves. However, dialogue can also provide a foundation for cooperation and collaboration, particularly when it occurs across multiple sessions over a period of time. For a polarised community, the new conversations which emerge can provide renewed hope and the opportunity to work together towards a different future. For an organisation, dialogue invites staff to bring their full self into the room. This can be especially helpful when exploring issues such as diversity and inclusion in the workplace, or how an organisation’s values translate into culture.

One example of where dialogue can be helpful is urban growth, which often leads of the construction of new housing estates on the urban fringe. Visual changes to the landscape, large numbers of new residents and competition for limited resources like schools and doctors can create growing pains, particularly when the established community liked things the way they were. In addition, increasing cultural and religious diversity may be unfamiliar and some may feel threatened. Dialogue for understanding can create an environment where newer and older residents are able to meet, share their stories, and to learn more about one another. Relationships are formed and common interests identified which can help to address some of the challenges, and to provide a platform for future collaboration.

It seems now there is a lot of interest in deliberative processes, but precious little interest, at the present time, in dialogue. Deliberative processes are fabulous for providing a space for randomly selected participants to arrive at recommendations on complex issues, but where communities are highly polarised something different is required as a response. What in your own journey brought you to dialogue?

I worked closely with Melbourne’s Muslim community over a number of years which was an immense privilege. However, the media narratives and political discourse at the time created an environment of fear and distrust of Muslims among the wider community and I know many people who experienced verbal abuse and worse. I remember thinking that if I could just get people together in a room to share food and talk then, perhaps, things might change.

Outside of work, a few like-minded folk and I were facilitating community conversations – but the tools we were using didn’t seem to be appropriate for situations where there was fear, tension or distrust. I started looking for alternatives, and came across the work of the Public Conversations Project in Boston. We began a conversation and in 2017 I was able to spend time in Boston learning more about their approach, shortly after they rebranded as Essential Partners (www.whatisessential.org ).

Is your organisation or community grappling with a situation or issue where dialogue may be helpful to build mutual understanding? Feel free to reach out to Paul or Max to explore further.

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