On Dialogue

What is dialogue?

Martin Buber (1), from a religious perspective described dialogue as speech “from one open-hearted person to another” in which there is a “genuine change from communication to communion”.

David Bohm (2), from a practical perspective described dialogue as communication that “can lead to the creation of something new only if people are freely able to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other”. Similarly to Buber, Bohm observed, “when people are really in communication, in some sense a oneness arises between them as much as inside the person”.

Dialogue and mediation

Jennifer Beer and Eileen Stief (3), two pioneers in the development of contemporary approaches to mediation explain that, “Our mediation model grew out of Quaker processes for finding the ‘sense of the meeting’ where the group as a whole tries to discern the right action to take”. Quakers invite each other to listen to what is said in an open minded charitable spirit. Christopher Moore (4) asserted, “Mediation is essentially dialogue or negotiation with the involvement of a third party.”  Kenneth Cloke (5) regards dialogue as part of the mediation process but different from it since mediation “focuses on finding solutions”.

I feel there has been a drift in mediation away from dialogue towards the management of a negotiation with this very focus upon solutions. I am concerned that mediation techniques that forget an ambition for dialogue may be more prone to involve the mediator in evaluating the conflict story and steering parties towards solutions.

The above glimpses of an ideal of ‘dialogue’ imply that people engage and participate, form judgments but also paradoxically maintain a selflessness that opens them, in Buber’s term, unreservedly to the other person. Thus, it would appear that dialogue is a difficult form of communication in any setting let alone when people have already come into conflict and are positioned in a mutual antagonism.

But whether it is intended to merely patch up a conflict, to negotiate solutions to problems or to seek out a deeper understanding and more lasting resolution, dialogue may be regarded as a pole star to guide those in conflict away from their practical, physical and emotional conflict situation. Mediators can themselves aspire to acting dialogically. To do so is also a necessary foundation for supporting conditions and opportunities for those in conflict to work towards communication approaching a dialogue.

I use the terms ‘aspire to’ and ‘approaching’ dialogue, as the idea of dialogue so far considered appears to assume that sovereign, autonomous individuals come together in a purported power vacuum to debate their differences. It may be argued that people are not autonomous, and instead are enmeshed in webs of power and that there will always be a context and background to their conflict that materially impacts upon it. Some would argue that context, culture and history construct the language and discourse in which momentary, conflictual exchanges occur.

If this is so the mediator may assume that an uncritical pursuit of dialogue between people to be somewhat fantastical. Mediators are unable to step out of their own social and political milieu and parties are shaped and constrained by social power relationships. One reaction to this realisation may be to dispense with any concept of dialogue as a guide to the mediator. Mediation might then become only a matter of managing a negotiation with a mediator focus upon settlement. But as noted above such a practice tends to assume that the individuals in conflict are solely responsible for their disagreement and need to be coaxed or led towards some form resolution. This has some merit but my own view is that this would overlook the complex issue of attributing ‘responsibility’ in a world where we, as individual agents, are to a significant degree constructed by our social environment.

Therefore, I would argue that a mediator should strive for a beacon of dialogue but recognise its full and sustained realisation to be unachievable. I believe that the mediator who is concerned with dialogue may be better able to minimise, contain or manage the ways in which he or she influences the parties. The mediator will thus attempt to engage with parties in conflict in a selfless way but simultaneously, and paradoxically, also pay attention to the parties’ differences, language and the context of their dispute in order to assist them in talking with each other to explore the conflict.

This concept of the role of the mediator is developed further in the section of this web site titled “Explorative mediation presentation and discussion”.



1. Buber, M. 2002 [1947] Between Man and Man, Abingdon: Routledge Classics

2. Bohm, D. 1994. Thought as a System, London. Routledge.

and Bohm, D. 1999 [1996]. On Dialogue. London. Routledge.

3. Beer, J.E. and Stief, E. 1997. The Mediator’s Handbook. 3rd ed. Gabriola Is, BC: New Society Publishers.

4. Moore, C. W. 2003. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, 3rd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

5. Cloke, K. 2001. Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Inc.