We had set up the parameters for a robust dialogue. Jane would lay out her view of the issue (the George W. Bush presidency; she was pro). Then I would share my (con) perspective. Neither of us could interrupt the other. There would be plenty of time for thoughtful questions later. We grabbed the Cheez-It® crackers, settled into comfy chairs, and got started.

It went well for a while. I was learning things about the conservative perspective I had never appreciated before. I could see Jane’s point (though I still disagreed with her assessment). This was progress.

Then other people joined us. And the dialogue became something else.

These folks did nothing wrong. They simply weren’t privy to what we were trying to do. So rather than listen in silence, they did what people often do: inject opinions, argue points, present counterarguments. Our dialogue became conversation, in which (according to Robert Apatow) “people express different views on a range of subjects without concern for where the conversation goes.”

So what? Here’s so what: We have deeply ingrained patterns that drive the way we discuss sensitive issues, especially politics. We know how to react with anger, defensiveness, and generalizations about the “other side.” So reacting in another way—especially an “opposite” way that tries to hear and connect with others—requires great care, deliberate planning, and attentive execution. Dialogue facilitators, like those who belong to NCDD, have spent careers doing just that.

In other words: Dialogue must be intentional.

Jane, bless her, was all about being intentional. Soon after the first people drifted in, she explained exactly what we were about and, in the process, invited others into the dialogue. We got back on track. But if she hadn’t intervened, we would have lost the ensuing dialogue and all the lessons held therein.

There’s nothing wrong with conversation. It’s one of life’s great treasures. But it is not dialogue. And we need dialogue in the continuing effort to reach across divides.