Conflict analysis of Dialogue

June 09, 2013

There are many conflict management processes

Tuesday I conducted a Dialogue with a team that had been in conflict for – by their reckoning – about ten years. They were so skeptical of conflict management and reluctant to discuss their issues that I suggested we try Dialogue instead of mediation.

They humoured me. At the Dialogue’s conclusion, they declined to schedule another session, and expressed disappointment that Dialogue was just talk when they needed magic. We politely thanked each other and said goodbye.

There are many possible good outcomes

On Friday, I phoned the team lead to check in. She reported with pleasure that the team experienced its quietest few days in years. Something profound changed between Tuesday and Friday for a team that hadn’t been keen to participate, had engaged half-heartedly, and then was frustrated that Dialogue isn’t about reaching agreement.

It was reasonable that after a decade of tension they all wanted the conflict to end. I understood they’d resisted opening up to mediate their differences and then preferred to achieve an agreement. And yet … without that, now there was some peace in the workplace.

The group last week had lived their conflict story for so long that it was hard for them to Dialogue about their values rather than dialogue (talk) about their dislikes and disagreements. Even where their values diverged, they listened to each other. By the end of the Dialogue process, they related to each other at a richer level of their shared humanity.

There’s dialogue, and there’s Dialogue

Capital ‘D’ Dialogue is a method for giving a structure to talking. Dialogue isn’t structured the way mediation is.

Dialogue isn’t about an issues list, agenda, interests under the positions, staged model, and settlement. After the introduction and initial question: ‘what’s important to you’, I’m mostly silent. When the group tries to problem solve, blame, revert to task orientation or discuss specific disagreements, I gently bring them back to discussing their values, what they stand for, and what they cherish.

Much has been written about how Dialogue differs from debate, discussion and mediation. Few use it. That makes sense at a human level. Getting signed Terms of Agreement is more immediately satisfying for both mediator and parties.

To hear Dialogue unfold in real-time is a wondrous experience. But, it does mean letting go of control, agendas, judgments, staged models, and problem solving; in short, of all the things we’re paid to do to get things done efficiently in the time allotted.

The best example of Dialogue available for watching

The brilliant movie, 12 Angry Men, is named on almost all Best Of the Silver Screen Lists of the past 100 years.  In it, Henry Fonda plays juror number 8. He is the only one of twelve jurors who wants to consider the evidence before finding the accused guilty.

The summary of the movie is often: Film_591w_12AngryMen_original“A dissenting juror in a murder trial slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court.”

This not really correct. #8 doesn’t convince anyone of anything. We’re so unaccustomed to Dialogue that we see argumentation and persuasion and convincing when it isn’t there. In true Dialogue form, over the course of about 90 minutes, Juror 8 listens, asks questions and listens more.

#8 asks the other jurors to consider the evidence. He asks if they’re certain. He questions their beliefs, values and what’s important to them. He inquires if the evidence guides them to where they want to go or if they’re making it fit where they already are. It’s Dialogue shining in its brilliance. And we barely recognize Dialogue enough to accurately summarize what the movie is about.


David Bohm’s Proposal for Dialogue is found on various sites on the Internet. It’s a different way of talking. It’s worth shaking the dust off the Dialogue model in our communications toolbox to give it a try.





  1. Conflict Competence says:

    That’s an interesting thing about Dialogue; it explores the values and interests from a non-judgmental place in the listener’s heart and mind. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Conflict Competence says:

    Thanks for the comment and reminder of Seas of Peace. It’s uplifting to hear the stories. Wonderful website, and work.