Lately, in scheduled meetings and casual conversations alike, I’ve found myself asking people to define their terms. Often the term is quite common, and we all think we understand it the same way—but then a certain turn of phrase tells me we don’t.

So before we get too far into this “dialogue about dialogue,” perhaps we should define our terms.

In Why Can’t We Talk? I spend a good deal of Chapter 1 wending my way toward a definition of dialogue. Here’s what I have so far:

Dialogue: an intentional, shared exploration of an issue, whose purpose is to deepen mutual understanding if not move closer to the reality of the issue, and whose structure requires participants to lay aside their preconceived notions and participate with a clear mind and a listening heart.

Let’s unpack this a little:

  • Dialogue is intentional. In this sense, it’s not quite the same as conversation. While conversations can dwell on a particular topic for a while, there is no agreed-upon focus and no specific goal in mind. As a result, they can meander from topic to topic. Is that good and healthy for the human spirit? Absolutely. But it’s not dialogue, which has a set purpose, i.e.:
  • Dialogue is a shared exploration. In this sense, it’s also not persuasion, or proselytizing, or anything similar. Unlike those modes of communication, dialogue requires us to assume that we don’t have the answer—and that we can work with our fellow dialogists to get closer to it. However…
  • Dialogue doesn’t always help us move closer to the reality of the issue. It certainly can, of course. But even the dialogues that appear to get us nowhere can hold inestimable value: drawing us into mutual acceptance, clearing away old stereotypes, and even assuaging the loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition.
  • Dialogue requires a clear mind and a listening heart. This is where spirituality plays its indispensable role. By allowing the Divine to shape us through spiritual practices (like regular prayer and meditation), we become more like the Divine: more compassionate, more self-giving, more aware of ultimate reality and our place in it. Our sacred cows and vested interests melt away. Our inner transformation makes us not only larger in spirit, but better able to hear and share in dialogue.

Each of these points, of course, could take up a book in itself. For now, though, let me stop talking and instead listen to you. This is a working definition, and you likely have insights I’ve never considered. Please use the Comments function to share them, or drop me a note with your thoughts.