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Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation

Daniel Yankelovich
Book Review with commentary

Dialogue, the highest realm of communication, comes naturally to many people. To others it comes only with experience. To still others it remains ever a stranger. Yankelovich leads us on a remarkable journey of insight into this vital tool that just might salvage our future. Dialogue is mostly about listening, and Yankelovich has been listening for a long time, not just to nature's songs but to American voices. His wisdom is on display in this delightful book; it is as simple and easy to read as it is profound in its meaning.

On the practical front, Yankelovich has much to offer. Dialogue first and foremost means listening with empathy. It works best when there are no coercive influences and the participants feel equal. He draws critical differences between dialogue and debate. Dialogue searches out values and strengths in the other's position while debate looks for flaws and weaknesses. Dialogue discovers new options and seeks closure; debate seeks only to ratify a prior position. Results can be profound, too profound to ignore. He illustrates why -- on the international scene no less -- and how dialogue has in fact bridged the enormous gaps of mistrust and cultural misunderstanding.

There are potholes even when the stakes are local or relatively less important.

    1. Holding Back -- Here people are simply reluctant, shy, or distrustful. Remember, dialogue cannot happen until trust is established between and among all participants. Some people are openly or covertly hostile. They may never join in. Establishing trust is the first and foremost of several important issues.
    2. Locked in a Box -- Some people, organizations, or groups do not think beyond their own confines or concerns. In this case, use questions to dig into why this is so. Ask about the various assumptions in the belief systems.
    3. Prematurely Moving to Action -- This one is typical of Americans -- we too often leap at the first alternative suggested without exploring the consequences much less the downsides. Or when confronted with an Authoritarian asking "What are we going to do about it?" we may feel intimidated and acquiesce. It would be better to counter by simply saying, "We are not ready for that yet." Or we might simply ask: "What are the downsides?"
    4. Listening Without Hearing -- Some people tune out. Others react quickly to literal words. Only true dialoguers listen empathetically to what others are saying while drawing them out. On the flip side, if we are accustomed to being intimidated, we may not be able to put our feelings and thinking on the line. Building self-confidence is a key here and practice will achieve it.
    5. Starting at Different Points -- This is useful when dealing with emotionally charged issues or where participants are on different parts of the learning process. Educating or reeducating those involved helps. This one is tricky.
    6. Showboating -- Like most other issues in conversation, a person's hang-ups can get in his or her way. That is a common problem. Low self esteem is often the driver. Extra time may be necessary to hear all sides out and get the conversation back to one of listening instead of preaching. Breaking in with questions or asking what is the point, might help.
    7. Scoring Debating Points -- These people are usually more interested in rebuttal than searching for truth. Again, extra time is needed. Asking instead of challenging is the dialogue game; some people take awhile to get the hang of it, especially if their experience has been limited to one of scoring in debates.
    8. Contrariness -- Like the previous pothole, this one involves people who simply cannot help adopting a contrary view. Their minds may already be made up. It pays to try to find out why, and proceed accordingly. Each of these is hang-up driven. Patience and time are needed.
    9. Having a Pet Preoccupation Some people are simply obsessed by a particular idea or interest, so much so that they have difficulty getting this idea out of their system. They have great difficulty hearing others out. Their preoccupations may well be justified, but their obsession can sidetrack dialogue. The fix usually lies in letting them blow off steam with enough feedback to convince them that they are understood while asking them about alternatives and striving to get them to respond to alternatives.
    10. Aria Singing -- This is also a compulsion that often sidetracks leaders. They find it difficult not to advance their special interests. The fix is to take the same tack as in 6 and 9 above.

In many cases, the waters to dialogue are already roiled, as they are in our era. One such danger is this: The domain of reality and scientific facts is usurped by a moral outlook. So also scientific laws are replaced by moral laws. This problem is particularly acute when local school boards succeed in doing away with the teaching of evolution. Evolution is a fact beyond any debate. Yet there are those who insist that the story of Genesis is the only truth and all the truth anyone ever needs.

A more immediately critical event occurred in late 2003. George Bush was interviewed by both Tom Russert and Diane Sawyer. In each interview, he insisted that it was right to invade Iraq, "regardless of the facts," because Saddam was evil.

Neither of these examples is subtle. And each has cost much too much in time, in energy, and in the case of Iraq, in too many lives. Dialogue would have been a much better way.

It is no accident that Americans in particular have difficulties engaging in dialogue. Most of us have a hang-up. Too many have multiples -- the writer of this page has residuals of two. Young American Males in particular are infected from early-life experiences that demand that they hold their own, never cry, make money, and make out with the girls. For some interpersonal effects see When to Bail Out and Extremism in Marital relationships.

For more see:

Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs.

Dialogue Guidelines. Links.

Little Boy Saved by an insightful woman.

Visit Moderation vs Marching for what Reverend Danforth has to say, and our sections on Inner Peace and Personal Action for some thoughts on what each of us can do individually.


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