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William Isaacs
Book Review and commentary

If there is one skill we can acquire to counter terror, violence, and war, it is dialogue. Those who already have the skill, will still enjoy reading this timely and provocative book. Isaacs also provides numerous examples and considerable insight into how to practice dialogue until it becomes a habitual pattern of behavior and communication. There is an old adage: "Two Heads Are Better Than One" and Isaacs superbly illustrates why.

Dialogue is the highest form of communication; it involves true two-way communication where each participant draws the other(s) out, searches for new meaning, voices his/her own opinion with integrity, all in search for truth or a mutually-acceptable course of action.

How does dialogue fit into terror, war, and violence? Well, the terrorist and war makers alike are not into dialogue. But some of them might be reached, and when they can be, dialogue works miracles. The move toward peace in North Ireland is a famous example. The Oslo Peace Process is another even though it was eventually split asunder by a Jewish extremist who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. Dialogue also works miracles with children, most of whom naturally engage in dialogue when led into it in their formative years. In the work place, dialogue not only bonds friendships but gives practitioners influence and increases group effectiveness. In politics, dialogue leads to wiser decisions, discourages "wild impulses" that all too often lead only to conflict. Those gifted in the art of dialogue often gain high positions. It may take considerable time before dialogue feels natural, years even. But the effort repays itself in spades.

Isaacs offers alternatives to edicts, confrontations, arguments, endless debates. He uses anecdotes and metaphors to make his points memorable, often vivid or amusing. He makes how-to-do-it understandable. His most important points are simply stated:

  • Listening (hearing each other out attentively)
  • Respecting (like partners in it together)
  • Suspending Opinion (allowing unconscious to catch up)
  • Voicing (maintaining individual integrity)

We would add empathy to this list. When empathy is present, dialogue often arises naturally. Conversely, dialogue can build empathy, where people feel with each other. Isaac's kernels are vital for building new behaviors, the kinds that build trust and peace. Practice by example encourages others to do the same.

Commentary and Implementation

Of course there are hard cases that blow off dialogue; they are the fundamentalists, the extremists, and, of course, the case-hardened criminals, psychopaths and genocidaires. Dialogue is not their way; it is their enemy. But for the rest of us dialogue has the utmost efficacy. And even the hard cases may yield when faced with a team bound together in dialogue. Dialogue also works between and among nations. Dialogue is needed more than ever in our times where humanity has achieved the capacity to make itself just another extinct species.

The levels of communication are:

  • Edict (one way, master and slave, only recourse is violence),
  • Argument (emotions prevail, a winner and a loser or two losers, violence possible),
  • Debate (most logical case wins, in eyes of third parties),
  • Dialectic (seeks compromise, both sides give and agree), and
  • Dialogue (earnest, mutual search for "truth" in harmony as well as it can be known; partnership in mutual interest results.)

Individual and team development are facilitated most effectively when everyone employs dialogue regularly and thoughtfully. Alternate ideas, views, beliefs and interests are given fair hearings. Each may be questioned, extended, accepted or discarded. Those involved experience an enlightenment not possible in other ways. They increase their insight. In these ways individuals grow with the group and the times.

Dialogue is an interchange of ideas and a search for understanding of ourselves and of one other. It is all about polishing communication techniques that open doors to everyone's ideas. It is all about togetherness and truth; it not about self-rightousness or command. Techniques of dialogue can be learned and that is a lot easier once hang-ups are out of the way.

Dialogue for the group is at least as important as mentoring is for the individual, and we strongly recommend further reading. An excellent place to start is the book briefly reviewed above. Isaac's book is full of gems. His introduction to listening is just one example; it follows:

    "The heart of dialogue is a simple but profound capacity to listen. Listening requires we not only hear the words, but also embrace, accept, and gradually let go of our own inner clamoring. As we explore it, we discover that listening is an expansive activity. It gives us a way to perceive more directly the ways we participate in the world around us. This means listening not only to others but also to ourselves and our reactions."

Isaacs points out that while we may work hard in preparing to speak, we do not work equally hard in preparing to listen.

The listening element of dialogue cannot be overemphasized. Dialogue is the art of relaxing our hang-ups (and biases) to the point where we hear eagerly and naturally think of extensions to what others are saying. In searching for truth, we can then reply thoughtfully instead of defensively, and this encourages responses in kind. Dialogue celebrates differences as it employs them.

Michael Brannigan: Dialogue: The First Step in Philosophy, has this to say:

    "The truth emerges through a sincere, authentic transaction of ideas in which the participants possess intellectual integrity."

Where opinions are examined logically and openly via mutual questions and answers, we collect the best thinking of everyone. This can have profound effects on decision-making and on morale as well. Participants feel an ownership of the decision taken. Group cohesion is enhanced.

What dialogue is, is one thing, what underlies it is something else. Here, Kris Rosenberg: Talk to Me: has insight to offer:

    Only when we fully realize our extraordinary ability to provide the ultimate sense of belonging can we find the confidence to open up real and basic emotional communication.

What we are and how we feel about one another is what really counts.

Role-Playing is an effective method for becoming aware and dealing with dysfunctional communication. It is effective for both groups and individuals in mentoring relationships. Empathy and dialogue are the key words. Emotional and intellectual openness are both facilitative for all participants. Have several individuals act out various hang-ups while interacting with one another-then discuss results. You know you are there when people begin to laugh as they recognize their own hang-ups.

Dialogue is a democratic way and it makes the very best of the total. Dictatorships can be no better than the dictator. History teaches the latter is not enough. Dialogue may be the most effective way for societies to avoid the perils of the Authoritarian Personality.

A negative nuance of language extant in the current American political scene is worth noting in conclusion. Wilfred Bion, the brilliant British psychoanalyst of WWII fame, makes a useful point. One can employ dialogue to encourage creative discourse as a prelude to action. This is the language of achievement, to use Bion's term.

On the other hand, one can use language to paint others into a corner, preventing interaction. If you want to start a war, for example, proceed with absolutes, (Saddam is bad), and question the patriotism of opposition. This is the language of substitution in Bion's language. It works when the opposition goes on the defensive. Instead of voicing the obvious, the opposition gets tied up in denials that project what the painter intended. The aggressor controls the agenda, substitutes his view for reality, and closes off useful dialogue.

Mr. Bush used just that trick in 2000 when he declared: "Al Gore will say almost anything to get elected." Gore bit and defended himself. Who wouldn't? Well, Bion would not have. His retort would and been in kind--"George Bush would too, so what else is new?" Did that simple language ploy change history? Looking at events surrounding the Florida recount, we believe it did.

How language is used can make the difference
between a democracy and dictatorship.
It could happen yet.

Imagine a man who
claims he is defending "freedom" yet
who cannot tolerate any freedom of expression
on the part of fellow citizens who have
legitimate questions.

A blog where you can post in dialogue style is: Once Upon A Time.

Blogs along lines similar to ours are posted by Arthur Silber on Once Upon A Time:

Arthur I
Arthur II
Arthur III

MACHINE TRANSLATE: This or any other page: Download Babylon


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