Introduction to Dialogue

John M. Gerber


Dialogue is an overused and much abused term for a very specific means of communication that we rarely employ effectively today.  Dialogue is a mindful communications process that helps individuals to clarify their personal thinking and values within the context of a community of practice.  It may also help communities or teams discover shared meaning, to think coherently, and perhaps to act in ways that serve the common good.  Unlike a discussion or debate, in dialogue there is no attempt to have any particular point of view prevail.  Rather dialogue results in shared understanding without judgment.  It is about building relationships, learning together and exploring personal and community values.



Early in the creation of a dialogue group, a agreement should be reached regarding its intent.  This is important to avoid creating expectations that will go unmet and subsequent disappointment and criticism.  Ask the question, is the primary purpose of this work to make a decision and/or take an action or, is the intent improved individual and collective exploration and understanding of a situation (which may or may not result in a decision or action).  This is important.  If the primary intent is exploration and learning through inquiry, dialogue is in order. 


What is dialogue?

While the word dialogue is often used today as a substitute for polite discussion or conversation, it is used here to signify a specific discipline with a particular meaning and intent.  A dialogue is a group communication process in which participants practice certain techniques to enhance their individual and collective learning.  In dialogue there is a shared commitment to inquiry without necessarily reaching a decision or taking a specific action.  In fact, the expectation or even a hope that a decision will be achieved by consensus or otherwise is enough to derail the dialogue process, especially among beginners.  This question of intent is important and although you can’t force a dialogue to happen, you can provide an environment in which people who truly desire to participate in a dialogue can be supported and encouraged. 


It may be useful to think about what a dialogue is not.  As stated above it is not a decision-making process, although it can result in relationships among group members that make decision-making much easier.  It is not a tool for planning action, yet it can produce the kind of mutual respect and understanding that improves the likelihood of successful group action.  It is not led by any single individual, however a facilitator is needed to help get it started and guide the process. 


The root of the word dialogue is from the Greek dia or through and logos or word, or meaning.  Therefore the dialogue process is a stream of meaning that flows through and among the participants.  On the other hand, the word discussion has the same root as the words percussion and concussion.  A useful image of a discussion might be a ping-pong game using words that bounce back and forth.  Many so-called dialogues we have in social situations end up in something of a parallel monologue, with each participant speaking more than listening.   Be aware for example, if you find yourself preparing your reply to someone else’s words while they are still speaking!  This is very common.




So what is needed to get started?  Participants need a clear understanding and at least initial agreement on the intent of the dialogue.  They should be prepared to make an investment of a specific amount of time to the process of learning and practicing dialogue. 


And what happens in dialogue?  As stated above, the primary purpose is collective exploration of ideas and learning.  This happens when someone brings up a thought or feeling, another person changes it and then still another connects it with a previous thought or feeling.  The thought/feeling flows in a kind of participatory consciousness that may result in both individual and collective learning over time.  It takes practice.  In addition to the group and individual learning, several other outcomes may result from the process.  Quite often, the dialogue results in improved relationships among the participants as well as a sense of shared meaning and mutual commitment to each other.  But it isnt always easy going.  When people are involved in a dialogue about something that is important to them they bring their whole bodies into the conversation, their hearts pump faster, adrenalin races, stomachs knot, shoulders tense.  Participants get angry, sad, confused and frustrated.  If members of the group can identify and share their thoughts as well as their feelings, get help in this process from fellow members, and stay with it long enough, a group consciousness may emerge.  Although this feeling of connectedness doesn't last, it can be a time of rapid and marked learning. 


While the purpose of dialogue is collective exploration and learning, it is not necessary to avoid individual advocacy for a particular idea or position, provided the purpose of the advocacy is to further collective learning.  Advocacy is generally used for the purpose of convincing a group of the rightness of your own position.  Even if this happens in a dialogue, the outcome may be group learning if it is noticed - and the group explores the underlying assumptions of the advocacy position.  Acknowledging your ownership of your ideas and then temporarily letting them go, will help the group learn together. 


The process may begin with a group of diverse people coming together for the purpose of joining in dialogue.  While intent is a necessary ingredient, it is insufficient in itself.  The result of unguided talk may be interesting conversation and perhaps individual learning, but not necessarily dialogue.  If the group stays together without the tools of dialogue and continues to explore differences of opinion, people may find themselves feeling frustrated.  Eventually the group may dissolve in embarrassment or a sense of futility.  Perhaps heated debate will produce smaller groups that cluster around ideas or people with whom they agree, allowing the us and them blame-game to proceed in comfort, but with little positive learning outcome.  If enough people hang in and begin to search within themselves for the source of their own personal discomfort or anger, a new kind of conversation may begin to happen.  By working through the crisis of collective discomfort, a new sense of trust may be forged by the group.  This is more likely to happen if the group practices one or more of the living techniques of dialogue.  The guidelines for the practice are included below. 


This introduction was adapted from: From; Meditating Together, Speaking from Silence – Experiencing the Dharma in Dialouge.  Published by the Metta Foundation.  Author - Gregory Kramer; 310 NW Brynwood Lane, Portland OR 97229, (503)292-8550;, and the Metta Foundation web page at;



Dialogue Guidelines Summary


1.   Commit to process:  Do the reading.  Show up.  Be attentive.

2.   Pause-Relax-Open (PRO):  Before you speak, stop and breathe, and then open yourself to wonder and awe.  Notice your body reaction.

3.   Trust Emergence:  Allow whatever is supposed to happen, to happen. 

4.   Speak the truth:  Listen deeply and speak from the heart.

5.   Notice Inter-reactivity: Notice how others affect you and vice versa.

6.   Release roles:  With humility, move beyond the personality, titles and roles.

7.   Seek out assumptions:  With creativity, see beyond the assumptions.

8.   Observe judgments:  Recognize the flow of judgments that come to mind.

9.   Share background (parallel) thinking:  Become aware of the constantly arising stream of thoughts and feelings and have the courage to share them.


Dialogue Process Checklist – Questions to ask yourself!

1. Commit

Be here!

2. Pause - Relax – Open

Did I stop before I spoke?  Did I examine my thoughts and body feelings?

3. Trust emergence

Do I have expectations of what people should say or how this dialogue should be?

4. Speak the Truth.

Have I shared that which I want to share?  Have I listened clearly to what others have said?

5. Notice Inter-reactivity

Is my reaction to what is being said my “standard” reaction?

6. Release roles

Do I have expectations of who other people are in the dialogue?  Am I playing a role myself?

7. Seek out assumptions

Have I examined the assumptions that are under my statements?

8. Observe judgments

Have I noticed when I am judging others?

9. Share parallel thinking

Am I willing to report on my parallel thoughts with compassion?



The following sections elaborate on these guidelines….


1: Commit

Commitment is foundational to Insight Dialogue. It has many levels and nuances.

At its most basic level, we commit to showing up for class and consistent practice. Also, there is the commitment to notify the instructors if you must miss a class. Obviously, we all live in the real world and conflicts may arise so there is no expectation that one show up for each and every class. However, as with any practice, certain difficulties lessen with a greater level of participation, and consistent participation helps the group to form a level of security and trust for greater sharing. If one picks up a musical instrument only infrequently to practice, great results are not to be expected. Dialogue practice holds to the same model. Practice fosters understanding and ease.

There is also a commitment to do the readings each week.  That dosen’t mean skimming over them just before class.  You will not deepen your understanding of these issues unless you study the materials and think about them before class. 

Over the course of an individual Insight Dialogue session and the process as a whole, the entire spectrum of emotions may present themselves: interest and joy may arise, and inevitably boredom, fatigue and restlessness. This is an important time to apply commitment as these experiences can have a tendency to reduce participation in a session or allow one to feed into the impulse to fill the space brought on by the discomfort we are experiencing in the silence. Again, look into presently arising experience. Speak from the space of attending to the moment if you feel moved to.


2: Pause-Relax-Open (PRO)

It is a typical experience to speak without thinking. We react quickly and this influences what we say and the rapidity with which we say it. In Insight Dialogue we pause. Pausing is a prevalent theme. Pause-Relax-Open is the core of the practice. It is in the pause that we release attachment to what is actually arising in the present moment. We listen deeply, becoming aware of our own reactions and the meaning of what is being said. We respond when moved, without reactivity. We contemplate how the dialogue unfolds as well as our relationship to it and the group.

Pause: We intentionally pause when someone else speaks. We also pause before responding.  Take a breath before you speak.  Look deeply at what is being said or at what you are about to say. Notice what arises as you think these words. Examine what their meaning is. Do you accurately understand the experience that is being conveyed? Are you accurately describing your experience?

Relax: When you pause, relax the body. Notice how the body reacts to all thoughts. Let the mind and heart calm down. Take the time to think about what has been said. Notice your body reactions.

Open: Expand your awareness from mindfulness of your internal experience so that awareness encompasses the dialogue and everyone in it. Contemplate what you have just heard or said. What arises for you in the moment you speak? How does your experience change in the ensuing pause?


3: Trust Emergence

In Insight Dialogue there are no goals or expected outcomes. The dialogue is a meditation practice and as such stands on its own. Some sessions may be compelling and some may carry extended periods of silence. There is no place to get and nothing to accomplish, excepting awareness of the present moment. Calling this guideline to mind, look for both obvious and subtle agendas that you may have. Notice how sensations, emotions, and thoughts change from one moment to the next, a constantly moving display of impermanence. Insight Dialogue, being a logical extension of Insight Meditation, concerns itself with our presently arising experience. It is a process of understanding the nature of suffering and of bringing about its end through awareness, acceptance, and ease.


4. Speak the Truth - Listen Deeply/Balance

When do we speak? When do we listen? When do we assert and when do we inquire? This guideline speaks to balancing speaking and listening as well as statements and questions. It is normal for an imbalance in the number times individuals speak to arise. This guideline in no way suggests that we must all speak equally. It is, however, a practice that centers on relationship. A key aspect of this practice is being aware of what arises in the moment as we relate to one another. We become aware of the thoughts and feelings that come up and, as we are moved, we share what arises. Awareness then continues after we have shared.

When a thought or feeling presents itself we can always observe and let go, ignore, suppress, or just feel that this is not worth sharing. Have the confidence to share those inner experiences that, for whatever reason, feel right to share. They may be persistent. They may seem valuable to you or others. They may sparkle with the light of recognition. One does not have to defend such thoughts; they are spoken as the truth of that moment.


5: Notice Inter-Reactivity

When people get together, they stimulate each other in all kinds of ways. One person's anger begets another person's fear; a compliment may arouse pride in one person and envy in another. As you interact, observe this process in yourself and others. Noticing inter-reactivity, relax and accept this experience and re-engage in a fresh way. When people interact, dynamics of the human system can emphasize individual personality traits. Such a system can even override an individual's normal ways of behaving. This can be seen in all kinds of groups, from soccer games in Latin America to corporate cultures and teenage parties. When inter-reactivity unfolds automatically, personality habits are reinforced. This can be harmful and run unchecked. This guideline reminds us to notice the mostly automatic processes that arise between people.

This guideline also points to wholesome potentials. While inter-reactivity can be mindless and unhealthy, it also reveals a healing truth: we are connected and inter-dependent. We come to see that feelings and ideas that seemed autonomous are really dependent upon human relationships. People form complicated human systems, and this is the very nature of social life. This can be noticed as it unfolds. We can work with it. We can learn to stimulate kindness, trust, and caring in each other.


6: Release Roles

In Insight Dialogue all participants are peers. There is no hierarchy, with the exception of a facilitator or teacher who may be present as the group learns. A participant who is relatively silent throughout a session may have great insights with the few words they say. Each thought in the dialogue should be given equal weight and the attentiveness of the arising moment. This can be a very fruitful avenue of exploration. Note how judgments and adherence to roles present themselves in the moment.

This is also a particularly fruitful guideline to take into our everyday lives. What boxes do we fit people into? How do we, ourselves, conform to roles that are expected of us? In our verbal communications what patterns do we fall into? How often our lives become if someone says "this", then I say "that". These patterns often result in stagnation in our lives, and worse still, sometimes outright animosity. They arouse discomfort in us and have a tendency to undermine our relationships.

In the practice of Insight Dialogue we look attentively at how these roles surface, and how we react to them. Through this process of recognition, understanding, and acceptance we get closer to the roots of these patterns and learn how we can shift to more honest and open interactions.


7: Surface assumptions

Assumptions occur on many levels. Some are blatant, such as stereotypes and gender biases. Some are incredibly subtle, like assumptions regarding the meaning of words. To pose an example, consider the word happiness. It is an assumption that this word holds the same meaning for everyone. In Insight Dialogue we search the present moment for any assumptions we may have. We search for assumptions in the words of the other participants. They may be assumptions regarding the meaning of a specific word or statement. They may be assumptions that arise regarding roles or any of the multitudes of assumptions that we carry with us due to our particular conditioning. Then with a mindful and compassionate heart we investigate or reveal these previously invisible tangles of the mind. Ultimately, as a group and as individuals perhaps we are able to suspend some assumptions and increase our ability to approach the present moment freshly and openly.

8: Observe judgments

The judging mind is well known to meditators. A few moments of introductory meditation practice is likely to reveal how our minds dart back and forth between like and dislike. We want this and we don't want that. Judging occurs very quickly and like assumptions, can occur on very subtle levels. It is important to keep in mind that judgments occupy both positive and negative thoughts. Very often the body is an excellent place to look for judgment. As I listen to what others say, what is occurring in my body? As with the previous guideline we look within our own experience at what is being said for judgments. With compassion and loving-kindness we seek to reveal these judgments without heaping more judgment on top of it. We practice investigation and equanimity.


9: Share Background (Parallel) Thinking

Background thoughts are thoughts that occur simultaneously with the main dialogue but do not necessarily share the same topic. Background thoughts include, but are not limited to, thoughts, questions, reflections on the process, emotions, feelings and bodily sensations. An example of a background thought could be: "When Gary said that I notice that I felt tightness in my back." Others might be unspoken judgments or simply wandering thoughts. Notice these as they occur. Examine your willingness to share or any aversion to sharing that may arise. Examine your experience as you consider the appropriateness of sharing the thought. It is not necessary to share all parallel thoughts, but do share those that you are moved to.

There is an element of risk involved in sharing background thoughts. While it may seem that they are 'off the topic,' they are as much a part of the presently arising experience as anything else. What may seem to be 'off the topic' can be a deep insight into the present moment conditioned by the dialogue that has been going on.

As in all aspects of this practice we carefully attend to the present moment, watching the arising and passing of experience. We pause and examine what has arisen. We look at the intention or hesitancy to share it. We breath before speaking, think about our words, examining the meaning of the words. Then we speak and contemplate what we have said always attending to our present experience. 

Adapted from: