Taking a Communication Perspective On Dialogue

W. Barnett Pearce and Kimberly A. Pearce

In Anderson, R., Baxter, L. A., & Cissna, K. N., Eds. (2003). Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 39-56.

The virtues of dialogue have been hailed in a variety of social contexts, including management, conflict resolution, community-building, interpersonal relations, and personal development (see, e.g., Chasen, Herzig, Roth, Chasin, Becker, & Stains, 1996; Dixon, 1996; Saunders, 1999; Yankelovich, 1999). Since most of these persons are not connected with our home academic discipline, we are glad that communication scholars have accepted the challenge of exploring the implications of society’s new experience with dialogue for understanding and practicing communication. However, our interest also runs in what we might call the other direction. In addition to asking what dialogue has to offer communication, we wonder what communication theory and research might offer for understanding and practicing dialogue.

Until recently, the disciplinary study of communication has apparently had little impact on the development of thought and practice of dialogue. To the best of our knowledge, none of the seminal figures in dialogue formally studied communication and none based their thinking about dialogue on theories of communication. For example, although the first chapter of David Bohm’s (1996) On Dialogue is titled “Communication,” the short (four page) treatment shows no connection to the scholarly work done by the academic discipline of communication. Martin Buber’s (1958) work was grounded in his philosophical investigations of the qualities of different forms of interpersonal relationships. Mikhael Bakhtin’s concept of dialogue emerged from a preoccupation with language and literature from the perspective that “No word can be taken back, but the final word has not yet been spoken and never will be spoken” (Morson & Emerson, 1990, p. 52). In a similar manner, most practitioner organizations that focus on dialogue ground their work on sources other than communication theory and research. For example, the Public Conversations Project applies concepts from family therapy to the public discourse (Chasin, et al., 1996); the National Issues Forums grounds their work on classical models of deliberation (Mathews, 1994, pp. 111-116); and Study Circles (2002) develop their practices on concepts of participatory democracy.

Although these thinkers and practitioners have somehow managed to overcome the handicap of not knowing communication theory and research (please read the preceding phrase as written with an ironic chuckle), we wonder how their thinking about dialogue might have differed if they had been acquainted with a robust theory or two of communication. Our curiosity is intensified because we realize that our own work as dialogic practitioners has distinctive elements that, for good or ill, result from our involvement with a particular theory of communication. In this chapter, we describe the ways this theory has informed our work, seeing this as a first step in exploring the potential for enriching dialogic practice from the basis of communication theory.

We are scholar-practitioners, deliberately working as “practical theorists” (Cronen, 2001) in which theory and practice are fully integrated. As theorists, we have been involved in the development of the theory of the “coordinated management of meaning” or “CMM” (Pearce, 1999; Pearce & Pearce, 2000); as practitioners, we are founding members of the Public Dialogue Consortium ( and Pearce Associates ( The PDC is a nonprofit organization intending to improve the quality of public communication about public issues (Spano, 2001, pp. 29-36), and Pearce Associates is a consulting firm specializing in dialogic communication.

Dialogue from the Perspective of CMM

We use four key CMM concepts to explore dialogue: the communication perspective, coherence, coordination, and mystery. The most basic of these is the knack of looking “at” communication, not “through it” to things that are thought to be more real or substantial. We call this “the communication perspective.”

“The Communication Perspective”

The communication perspective names an insight that Richard McKeon (1957) described in this way: “Communication does not signify a problem newly discovered in our time, but a fashion of thinking and a method of analyzing which we apply in the statement of all fundamental problems” (p. 89). Note that the “communication perspective” is a non-totalizing perspective. It proposes that we see events and objects as textures of communication; it does not make the “nothing-but” argument that events and objects are only patterns of communication.

Taking the communication perspective involves three steps. The first step consists of seeing organizations, families, persons, and nations as deeply textured clusters of persons-in-conversation. A family can be seen as constituted by the conversations that it permits and those that it does not, and by the persons whom it allows to participate in certain conversations. The structure of the family is changed if, for example, the children are included into conversations that they have previously been excluded from, or if events or some outside person initiates a conversation unlike that those which currently constitute the family (Cronen & Pearce, 1985; Stone, Patton & Heen, 1999). In a similar way, organizations can be seen as clusters of conversations and managers as orchestrating conversations rather than embodying information or power. Matters of efficiency, morale, productivity, and conflict can be handled by attention to what conversations occur, where, with what participants, in what type of language, and about what topics (Barrett, 1998; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2002; Kegan & Lahey, 2001). Much of the work of the Public Dialogue Consortium consists of starting conversations and shaping them. That is, we bring people into conversations who would ordinarily not talk to each other or, if they did, would talk at rather than with each other, and we facilitate the development of certain qualities of conversation in contexts where these qualities do not ordinarily occur. By focusing on the form of communication with principled disinterest in the topic and neutrality toward “positions” about those topics, we have been able to bring about significant change in the social worlds of participants (Spano, 2001).

The second step in the communication perspective is the realization that communication is substantial and that its properties have consequences. Tannen (1999) noted that public discourse in America is dominated by adversarial forms of communication. While not denying the value and situational virtue of standing against that which one does not support, she calls into question the preference for:

using opposition to accomplish every goal, even those that do not require fighting but might also (or better) be accomplished by other means, such as exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating, and the exchanging of ideas suggested by the word “dialogue.” I am questioning the assumption that everything is a matter of polarized opposites, the proverbial “two sides to every question” that we think embodies open-mindedness and expansive thinking.” (p. 8)

Some consequences of this quality of public discourse include simplifying complex issues (into just two sides); eliminating possibilities for creative solutions not prefigured in the positions initially proposed; creating animosities and enemies who sometimes are more concerned with “winning” the contest with the other than to implement the best policies; and driving from the public sphere those who do not relish no-holds-barred combat.

When comparing our ways of thinking about dialogue with others, it is perhaps significant that we usually work with groups who already see each other as enemies or opponents and have an established pattern of animosity and conflict. When we bring these persons and groups together, we note the importance of such “minor” matters as how a question is phrased, whether a statement is followed by a counter-statement or a question, nuances of timing and tones of voice, and the pattern of who responds to whom..

Communication is not a neutral vehicle by which an external reality is communicated about, and by which factors of psychology, social structure, cultural norms, and the like are transmitted or are influential. The communication process: (a) exerts a role in the personal identities and self-concepts experienced by persons; (b) shapes the range of permissible and impermissible relationships between persons, and so produces a social structure; and (c) represents the process through which cultural values, beliefs, goals, and the like are formulated and lived. (Sigman, 1995, p. 2)

Because communication is both material and consequential, rather than ask “what is it about?” we ought at least also to ask, “how is it possible for a turn of phrase (or other behavior) to emerge during interaction and to shape, in an unplanned-for manner, ensuing behavioral production?” (Sigman, 1995, p. 4).

The third step in the communication perspective consists of treating such things as beliefs, personalities, attitudes, power relationships, and social and economic structures as made, not found. From this perspective, they are seen as constituted in patterns of reciprocated communicative action (Pearce, 1989, pp. 3-31). The term “constituted” stands in the place of other verbs that connote different and, we believe, less useful concepts -- forms of the verb “to be,” for instance, describe things as static and direct our attention to what they are made of and to their causes or effects. On the other hand, the term “constitute” directs our attention to how the events and objects of our social world are made.

For example, many people had asked what the carved stone heads on Easter Island meant, and suggested that they were evidence of Egyptian seafarers or monuments to aliens from space. At least as described in his own account of the events, Thor Heyerdahl (1960) employed a different method that generated very different results. He asked a native of the island if he could make one of the megalithic statues. When told that he could, Heyerdahl hired him to do so and filmed the process from beginning to end. Not only a clever way of outflanking interminable arguments among armchair pundits, what we like to call the “Heyerdahl solution” involves a major philosophical shift: describing the processes by which things are made rather than analyzing the final product.

In many ways, the “communication perspective” simply consists of applying the “Heyerdahl Solution” to such things as arguments, political policies, and interpersonal relationships. Like Heyerdahl, we shift from asking about what they “are” and begin to look at how they are “made” (Pearce, 1994, pp. 66-70).

The more traditional way of thinking about communication describes messages as expressing meanings or referring to events and objects. Taking the communication perspective, we speak rather of meanings, personalities, acts, institutions, etc. as being constituted in communication, and of specific messages as responding to and eliciting other messages. Penman (2000) described her adoption of the communication perspective this way:

I first began …with a seemingly innocent and obvious question: “What makes a good relationship?” It soon became apparent, at least to me, that this question needed to be reworded to “What makes a good communication process?” Communication is the observable practice of a relationship, and so it was to the actual process of communicating that I had to attend.” (p. 1)

Although everyone acknowledges that dialogue has something to do with communication, many treatments look “through” communication to see something else that is considered more real or important. We are experimenting with the idea of radically foregrounding communication – what people actually say and do in specific contexts – to an extent that, we think, extends beyond others who are at the cutting edge of this field. When we read Isaacs (1999), we get the impression that “suspending assumptions” is the foregrounded aspect of dialogue, and that what people actually do and say is a means to that end. Gergen, McNamee and Barrett (2001) and Cissna and Anderson (1998) pay considerable attention to the give-and-take of communication, but, again, we get the impression that communication is understood in service to developing something else, such as “transcendent vocabularies” on which people may draw or the quality of interpersonal relationships. With deep respect to these theorists, we are still curious about what would happen if we were to follow more radically Penman’s (2000, p. 1) lead and think of “the actual process of communicating” as constituting dialogue.

The practitioners whose work we have studied distinguish among dialogue, discussion, diatribe, and debate, noting that these forms of communication lead to substantially different outcomes (e.g., Chasin et al., 1996; Tannen, 1999). Like them, we believe that forms of communication are material, calling forth different ways of being in the participants and providing different affordances and constraints. Dixon (1996) described dialogue as:

Talk -- a special kind of talk – that affirms the person-to-person relationship between discussants and which acknowledges their collective right and intellectual capacity to make sense of the world. Therefore, it is not talk that is “one way,” such as a sales pitch, a directive, or lecture; rather it involves mutuality and jointness. (p. 24)

Listening for understanding (rather than to find the flaw in the other’s position) is easy when communicating dialogically but difficult in the reciprocated diatribe of a political campaign; expressing one’s own commitments without eliciting an attack or being dismissed is possible when communicating dialogically but is virtually impossible when debating. Emotion, passion, confrontation, and challenge occur within dialogue, just as they do within other forms of communication (Pearce, 1995), but do so “within bounds that affirm the legitimacy of others’ perspectives” (Dixon, 1996, p. 24), and these “bounds” enable very different things to be done with these emotions and in these relationships.

Taking a communication perspective, we want to go further than differentiate dialogue from non-dialogic forms of communication. Relevant questions include “how is dialogue made in communication?” and “what is made by dialogic communication?” (Kearney, 2002; Pearce, 1989, pp. 23-31). In the following paragraphs, we describe how these questions have directed our inquiry.

We noted that various practitioners use the term “dialogue” differently, both in terms of what they refer to as “dialogue” and in the grammars they use when talking about it. Here are two examples of grammar that fell heavily on our ears. A consultant coming to our area offered to “do a dialogue” for a client organization, pro bono. What is “dialogue” that one person can “do” it for another, even if pro bono? A participant in an online forum about the use of dialogue in organizational development, after acknowledging what had been said in the previous posting, described herself as “wondering why…” and then added, as a parenthetical comment, “(Sorry if this inquiry sounds indirect but I was trying to ask the question dialogically rather than as a direct question…)”. Is a “direct question” incompatible with “dialogue”? Is it impossible to ask “direct questions” dialogically? We think that there are clouds of philosophy in drops of grammar, and that these patterns of speech constitute different ideas about dialogue.

To explore these differences, we analyzed transcripts of conversations that the participants named as dialogues (Pearce & Pearce, 2000). We recognize that each transcript underrepresents the complexity, overrepresents the coherence, and misrepresents the fluidity of the grammar of practice of which it is a part. However, our study identified two traditions of practice with subtle but perhaps important differences in their concepts of dialogue.

One tradition uses “dialogue” as a noun naming a type of communication that is different from others. These practitioners work to create a stable “container” in which participants can engage in dialogue. They often describe dialogue as having no agenda or specific purpose other than “thinking together.” In our observations, the form of communication within this container consists of the serial repetition of a single speech act with three parts. The speaker first acknowledges the preceding statement, perhaps by paraphrasing or expressing thanks for the contribution; performs a segue such as “that makes me think of;” and then states what she or he is currently thinking. The speech act is performed well when spoken “to the center of the room” and avoiding “interpersonal dynamics” (Isaacs, 1994, p. 380). Following these rules, it makes sense to offer “to do a dialogue for you,” and asking a direct question is out-of-bounds because it risks “falling out of dialogue” and into interpersonal dynamics.

This tradition of practice has been widely used in corporate America and there are several professional consulting groups who offer training and facilitations (e.g., Dialogue Group, 2002). Those experienced in it claim that this kind of dialogue makes it possible for groups to think in a particularly useful way:

Dialogue transforms the quality of tacit thinking that underlies all interactions. It thereby adds to these practices an in-the-moment insight and reflective quality that transcends the mechanical application of theories. In dialogue, people interact in a way that “suspends” habitual thought and action. They become free to engage in inquiry, about both the quality of interpersonal reasoning, and the nature of the underlying shared ground of meaning in which they interact. Even in high-stakes situations, percussive conflict is replaced with breakthroughs in collaborative inventiveness. (DIA•logos, 2001)

We identify with a different set of practitioners, who use “dialogic” as an adjective or adverb describing a distinctive quality of communication in which any speech act can be performed. Rather the naming some forms of communication as “dialogue” and contrasting it with other forms, such as “discussion,” “debate” or “monologue”, these practitioners refer to a distinctive quality of “dialogic communication” or “communicating dialogically” which can be done in any form of communication. When communicating dialogically, one can listen, ask direct questions, present one’s ideas, argue, debate, etc. (Pearce, 1995). The defining characteristic of dialogic communication is that all of these speech acts are done in ways that hold one’s own position but allow others space to hold theirs, and are profoundly open to hearing others’ positions without needing to oppose or assimilate them. When communicating dialogically, participants often have important agendas and purposes, but make them inseparable from their relationship in the moment with others who have equally strong but perhaps conflicting agendas and purposes.

The dialogic quality of speech acts is often achieved by verbal or nonverbal metacommunication (e.g., “my story about this…which might be different from yours…is that…”), the help of a facilitator, and/or the careful design of meetings. Dialogue happens in what Cissna and Anderson (1998) call “moments of meeting” in which people respond to others as “Thou” rather than “it,” using Martin Buber’s (1958, p. 4) terms, and find themselves transformed because the “I” of “I-thou” is not the same as the “I” of “I-it.” Such moments cannot be made to happen or delivered on schedule as a package: “dialogue thrives at the margins of human agency—those ill-defined situations in which we imagine we are somewhat in control but in which our plans surprisingly can blend into the unexpected…. Dialogue, which cannot be mandated, rarely happens accidentally either” (Anderson, Cissna, & Arnett, 1994, p. xxi). However, if we attend to the quality of what people actually say and do in communicating with each other, then we think we have a better idea of how to invite and prepare the conditions for these moments to occur.

Practitioners in this second tradition tend to work in public or community contexts, often with people who are deeply committed to opposing political or social positions. Exemplary organizations include the Public Conversations Project (2002), Study Circles (2002), and the Public Dialogue Consortium (2002). Among these groups, the PDC’s work is distinctive in that our work is explicitly based on communication theory and our practice includes members of the public discussing community issues in public meetings. Since we do not know who will attend until they arrive at the door, our ability to select and work with participants before the meetings is limited. This circumstance makes us stress careful design of these meetings and the use of trained facilitators. We spend a good bit of time training community members to facilitate conversations among their peers about issues they perceive as very important.

Hundreds of people, including middle school children, adult professionals, and seniors, have participated in trainings to learn to facilitate dialogic communication. The normal profile of participants in our training is a group of 20-30 volunteers representing a cross-section of the community in which we are working. In our opinion, there is a “turning point” in the learning curve of most participants, occurring much sooner for some than for others, when they “get” what we are trying to teach. They begin to respond to novel situations in ways consistent with the grammar of dialogic communication and act with a high degree of self-confidence. We believe that this happens when they put together two concepts: the “communication perspective,” which focuses on communication itself, and the characteristics of “dialogic communication,” as the specific, desired quality of communication. In our workshops, we describe dialogic communication as remaining in the tension between standing your own ground and being profoundly open to the other.

The challenge in our work as practitioners is facilitating people not necessarily interested in it to engage in this quality of communication in situations that are not conducive to it. Our attempts to achieve this objective are grounded in concepts from CMM: coherence, coordination, and mystery.

Coherence: Making Meaning Together

When CMM was introduced in the late 1970s, the claim that stories were integral to human life was far more controversial than it is now (see Bruner, 1992). Like many other theories, CMM assumes that these meanings take the form of stories. It sees persons as storytellers, attempting to ensconce both the extraordinary and quotidian aspects of our lives within stories that make them coherent. The stories we tell are fateful; they guide and direct the way we feel, think, and act. It is not too much to say that “human beings [are] storytellers, at once immersed in linguistic webs that they did not spin and busily weaving webs in which to immerse [themselves and] others. Whether these ‘webs’ are imprisoning snares or enabling scaffolds, is, of course, a matter of opinion” (Pearce, 1989, p. 68).

The term “coherence” is used to designate human activity as meaning-making; not as a judgment about the success of that process. As all researchers who have studied transcripts of actual conversations know, people seldom say all that they expect other people to hear them as having said, and sometimes say something quite different from what they expect to be heard as having said, but usually treat others as if they are responding to what they intended to be heard as having said. Our first clue for this insight came from analysis of ordinary conversation (Pearce & Conklin, 1979) and was supported by our studies of the desiccated discourse in intractable conflicts (Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997).

Based on these findings, what we call “enriching the conversation” (Pearce, 2002; Pearce & Pearce, 2001) is a key step in our work as dialogic practitioners. Facilitators are taught to treat any statement as an anecdote rather than a complete story, and to ask questions inviting the speaker to describe the fuller story, to move among first and third-person perspectives in telling the story, to probe for untold and unheard stories, to explore the differences between stories lived and stories told, and to bring in other voices to tell the story more systemically (for a description of these “ways of working,” see Pearce, 2002; Spano, 2001, pp. 36-44). When we are able to create a situation in which participants feel respected and confident that their interests will be protected, they often welcome the opportunity to speak more fully than usual about the things that matter most to them, and in this process, both they and those listening to them discover new richness in their stories and find openings to move forward together.

CMM’s “hierarchy model of actors’ meanings” (Pearce, Cronen, & Conklin, 1979) is a useful tool for enriching conversations and for understanding the complex role of those who facilitate dialogue. Building on Bateson’s (1972) use of the idea of logical types, Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) suggested that communication necessarily involves two levels, such that “relationship” is the context for and functions as a metacommunication about “content.” The idea of contextualization proved very useful. Among other things, it explained how saying the same thing can mean different things depending on the context, and that what is said as “content” sometimes functions just as a carrier for doing something at the relationship level.

CMM extended the idea of contextualization in several ways (Pearce, Harris, & Cronen, 1981). First, it suggested that we always tell multiple stories – an indefinite number, but always more than just two – about what is going on in any moment in communication. One way of parsing out these stories is that one deals with the relationships among the communicators (as Watzlawick et al., 1967, noted); another with concepts of self; another with the “episode” that the communicators are performing (this is the answer to “what are we doing together?”); and others about situational contexts (e.g., organizational culture, family stories, church, school, or play).

Second, CMM suggested that all of these stories stand in a contextualizing/ contextualized relationship with each other but one in which there is no fixed pattern. That is, “relationship” is sometimes the context for and sometimes contextualized by stories. One of the tasks for interpretive research is to explore not only what stories are being told to make a particular experience coherent, but also their ordinal relationship. The assumption is that some stories are, at any moment in time, at a “higher level” than others, exerting a nonreciprocal contextualizing function over them. The person to whom you are talking may be joking, of course, but it makes some difference if the “joke” is a momentary part of a higher context story about your relationship and what you are doing together, or if the joke is the highest level of context and your relationship and the episode are just part of it.

Third, CMM insisted that both the substance of these stories and the pattern of reciprocal contextualization are mutable. As Sigman noted (1995, p. 4), things that happen in a conversation can change a participant’s story about the other participants and what is being done together. But even if the story is not changed, its position within the pattern of which stories are the context for, and which are in the context of, other stories can shift, and this may have important consequences. A story that was relatively unimportant can become the overarching context, and vice versa. For example, at the beginning of our public meetings, many participants are primarily concerned to express their position and to refute the position of those they perceive as opponents or enemies. As the meeting progresses, their story of the “other” changes; now they are seen as partners or at least co-stakeholders. Rather than being perceived only as obstacles to achieving one’s own goals, others are seen as persons with legitimate goals of their own. The story about the meeting changes from competition to collaboration. But perhaps the most important change is that their story of self (and their own agenda) moves from the highest position of contextualization to one much lower, while the story of episode moves from low to high.

In 1996, the PDC planned and facilitated a Town Hall meeting in Cupertino, California (for a more complete description, see (Spano, 2001, pp. 102-115). This meeting followed a series of small group discussions during a six month period (for a description, see Spano, 2001, pp. 59-98), in which every group had named the implications of rapidly changing demographics in the community as their most significant concern; several used the phrase “a powder keg waiting to explode.” We learned that residents of all racial groups spoke freely in homogeneous meetings, but that no one felt safe enough to talk about the issue publicly.

Although the small group sessions were valuable as a first step in enriching their stories about diversity in Cupertino, the objective of the Town Hall meeting was to help residents talk abut the issue publicly, in a racially heterogeneous meeting, in dialogic communication. We realized that it was important to shift participants’ expectations from “Town Hall meeting” as a place where they could get on their individual “soap boxes” to an expectation that they would listen as well as speak, and speak so that others would want to listen to them.

To create the conditions for dialogue, we did several things. During the two months before the Town Hall meeting, we trained 70 high school students to interview adults about positive experiences they have had with diversity in the city. Sixteen of these students talked about these interviews during the Town Hall meeting. During the meeting, we also provided an opportunity for residents to talk about their experiences in ways that would enrich the community’s understanding of the issue. Among other things, representatives from the small group discussions reported what they had learned in their meetings, and trained facilitators guided small groups at the meeting in reflecting on what was heard.

Toward the end of the meeting, we invited participants to speak to the whole group in something resembling the usual “open microphone” format of Town Hall meetings. One speaker was Cupertino resident and school board member Barry Chang. Mr. Chang forcefully articulated the Asian community’s sense of living in a contradiction between being blamed for not participating in the community and shut out or accused of trying to “take over” when they tried. This was a hard thing for many in the audience to hear, because they correctly perceived it as an indictment. It could have been the divisive tirade that ignited the powder keg of smoldering resentments on all sides of the issue. Instead, it was a breakthrough moment of dialogic communication. Both the circumstances and the manner in which he spoke enabled even those who were being accused of treating Asians with contradictory messages to hear what he said and acknowledge his passion. This is a transcript from the videotape of the community access television broadcast of the meeting:

Yes, my name is Barry Chang. I am not Michael Chang’s [the first Asian elected to the city council] brother, ok. It just so happens to be the same last name.

I think there’s a cultural gap in between, between when we’re talking about the diversity here. For example, in my business, I went out door-to-door knocking a lot. I heard a lot of comments that Asian community or Asian owner doesn’t participate. They are the takers. They are not the givers. And then, they don’t take care of their yard. And when I went back and think about it, where I came from, Taipei, Taiwan, I mean barely you don’t have a yard to take care of at all. So we have no custom, no tradition, no habit to take care of the yard. Now we end up here with a big yard and what are you going to do? If you don’t do anything in summer, within 2 weeks, it die already. So a lot of those differences, a lot of people don’t understand.

And then when I came out running for Cupertino School Board, last year, when Michael and I won, and the local newspaper want to have an article after they interviewed me and Michael, they say they would have an article wrote it in this way. Heading says, “Chang’s Dynasty Taking Over Cupertino!” I mean when we’re accused not coming to serve, to help, to participate, and then when we come out then they will say you are taking over Cupertino, which is not, you know, doesn’t feel quite well from my feeling, so I have to protest.

And also when I started a couple of years ago when I was helping in the school with my wife. Then the other parents asked me “Why don’t you help out in the PTA?” and I said, “What’s the PTA?” and they say, “It’s Parent Teacher Association is helping the school a lot.” I went to the PTA meeting and as you men know, most PTA were attended by mother. So when I went over there, I was the few father in there. And added up with when every organization have their ongoing business going on, and when you cut in the middle, you really got lost. Then second, when I sit in there, I heard the mother said “I move this, I move that.” I was very puzzled because I thought she was sitting there, she was not moving anywhere. Why is she keep saying “I move this, I move that?” And then someone follow would say “I second” and I was even more puzzled because I feel you don’t have to be so humble, no one claim to be the first, why you have to be second. And that’s the cultural difference.

Maybe I let you know back in the country where I came from, the government at the time wasn’t purposely try to give you the democratic because they know if they give you the democratic, the people will ask for power. So we never been trained that way. So let alone coming here, you get all this different language barrier, and all this format, all this democratic process. So I thought it was someone inside the door waving to people outside “Why don’t you come in and help?” and then the people outside couldn’t find the door. So that’s a situation we have to understand and I think the most important, we have to understand the cultural gap and also the tolerance between each other. And that’s my comment. (Applause)

When Barry Chang told his story, the other participants at the meeting had an understanding and appreciation for the difficulties of recent immigrants that they hadn’t had before. The ability to talk about diversity (or as we had heard earlier “a powder keg waiting to explode”) using dialogic communication invites participants into a different kind of relationship with each other, enriching the stories of “self,” “other,” and “community.”

Coordination: Meshing Actions with Others

In addition to being storytellers, human beings are physical entities that occupy space and both respond to and elicit responses from others. From the communication perspective, these patterns of what Shotter (1993) calls “joint-actions” are real, and their characteristics constitute our social worlds. Although we presented “coordination” after “coherence” in what we have written here, an immersion in language games comes prior to the development of individuals (Beebe & Lachmann, 2002, pp. 38-42; Stern, 2002). Even as adults, conversations are multi-modal, with verbal interaction intertwined with intricate patterns of nonverbal cues-and-responses which are at least as important to the conversation although they are usually out-of-awareness and something about which the conversants have no story (Mehrabian, 1981).

The term “coordination” is used in CMM to direct attention to our efforts to align our actions with those of others. Among other things, the necessity to coordinate with others shows that communication is inherently and fundamentally social. No matter what speech act– whether threat, compliment, instruction, question, insult, or anything else –its successful performance requires not only your actions but the complementary actions of others (Pearce, 1994, pp. 109-125; Shotter, 1993).

By recognizing the social nature of communication, dialogic communicators are alerted to recognize openings to invite others into dialogue. When others act in ways consistent with, for example, debate or diatribe, we can respond with planned incongruence in ways that have the potential to transform the conversation dialogically. These in-the-moment invitation and facilitation skills involve recognizing the “normal” response to what others say and do, and choosing instead to respond in ways that make a preferred form of communication. What can you say to make a passionate advocate of a position listen respectfully to the passionate advocacy of a different position? How can you act into a situation in such a way that it elicits from others a willingness to treat each other as co-stakeholders rather than enemies? If your goal is to invite people to speak in a manner that others want to listen, and to listen in such a way that others want to speak, what can you do to elicit that response? Much of the work that we do in our trainings consists of coached practice in these skills (Pearce, 2002, pp. 37-49).

Mystery: Openness to Novelty and Acknowledgement of Limits

Although “mystery” is one of the least frequently cited concepts in CMM, it is perhaps the most relevant to an understanding of dialogic communication. An explication of this concept grounds a commitment to a life of dialogue, not just as a personal preference or because of its instrumental effects, but as prefigured by the nature of communication itself.

Acting like a native in any group or culture involves using particular stories that, among other things, name persons, differentiate among foods that can be eaten raw and those that must be cooked, and evaluate acts by locating them in complex webs of responsibility and morality. A number of stories suffice for members of a group or culture to achieve coherence by taming the terrors of history and imposing meaning and order on the world. Further, they can coordinate if they make the same – or at least recognizable -- nominations, differentiations, and evaluations. However, mystery is the reminder that these nominations, differentiations, and evaluations are ultimately arbitrary, made rather than found. As Gergen (1999) put it, “the terms by which we understand our world and our self are neither required nor demanded by ‘what there is.’ … Every thing we have learned about the world and ourselves … could be otherwise” (p. 47).

One reading of mystery – a fairly shallow one, but still sufficient to imply that we should commit ourselves to a life of dialogue – is grounded on the observation that everything in human life can be, and probably has been, ensconced in multiple, contradictory stories, and that people with different life experiences and learning histories find different stories equally compelling.

This observation provokes very different responses, reflecting once again the wisdom of William James’ (1975) observation that temperaments -- or as he put it, “our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means” ( p. 9) -- direct our theoretical commitments rather than vice versa. Those with a critical commitment can use the fact of multiple, contradictory stories as the basis for careers in which they expose patterns of exploitation and domination in particular stories, seeking to replace those stories with other stories, purportedly more benign or benevolent, and creating a world “in which mutuality predominates and satisfaction does not mean the triumph of one over the repressed needs of the other” (McCarthy, 1979, p. xxiv). On the other hand, the plurality of ways of being human can be seen as a warrant for a life of dialogue, in which those who are “natives” of different social worlds are enabled to achieve communication with each other, starting with an appreciative celebration of the richness of human experience rather than the immediate categorization into better and worse. This temperament resonates with Clifford Geertz’s (1983) poetic pronouncement:

To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. But the far more difficult achievement is that of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken: a case among cases; a world among worlds. Without this largeness of mind, objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham. (p. 16)

A more radical and controversial concept of mystery focuses on the power of language and, in our judgment, unequivocally leads to a commitment to dialogic communication. The most common way of framing this discussion – but not the route that we follow – starts with the question of whether we are able to say what is “there” in non-linguistic reality. Imagine a continuum in which those on one side say that nothing can be “said” as it is, and on the other side, that everything – or at least everything important – can be said and said well. The second side of this continuum is anchored by John Searle’s (1969) “principle of effability” which declares that everything that can be thought can be said, and said clearly. Not far from this extreme position is the “earlier” Wittgenstein’s (1921) dictum that “everything that can be said can be said clearly, but not everything can be said,” and Steiner’s (1967, p. 12) claim that “all truth and realness – with the exception of a small, queer margin at the very top – can be housed inside the walls of language.” Kenneth Gergen’s social constructionist position represents the extreme position on the other side. According to Gergen, (1994), there is an inherent disconnect between what we say and what we are talking about. “The terms by which we account for the world and ourselves are not dictated by the stipulated objects of such accounts” (p. 49). Rather, he said, they “are social artifacts, products of historically and culturally situated interchanges among people” (p. 49) that have more to do with social processes than to the “objective validity of the account” (p. 51).

Our preferred way of framing the concept of mystery avoids this continuum of effability. Instead, it focuses on the work that language does rather than on that to which it refers. From this perspective, even Searle’s principle of effability is seen as underrepresenting the power of language. Language does not just name the things of our experience, it creates them. The problem with words is not that they are too vague; it is that they are too precise. When something is named, language seduces us to forget all the other names that might have been used and all the other stories in which it might have been included. But moving beyond the linguistic function of naming, the communicative act of making speech acts requires not only a story, but the telling of a story – and this story is told by a specific person, in a specific language (dialect and all), and is told in a specific time and place (limited by acoustics, interrupted by other storytellers, etc.). Further, speech acts are not completed until they are responded to, and that response elicits another, and so on. As Shotter (1991) noted:

Everyday human activities do not just appear vague and indefinite because we are still as yet ignorant of their true underlying nature, but they are really vague…the fact is, there is no order, no already determined order, just…an order of possible orderings which it is up to us to make as we see fit. And this, of course…is exactly what we require of language as a means of communication: we require the words of our language to give rise to vague, but not wholly unspecified “tendencies” which permit a degree of further specification according to the circumstances of their use, thus to allow the “making” of precise and particular meanings appropriate to those circumstances. (p. 202)

The communication perspective focuses on the question of what is “made” by particular instances of communication. This creative aspect of communication is so powerful that it not only creates, but it also necessarily destroys. In any given moment of communication, the actor must act, but can only make real one of the many potential acts that he or she could potentially have performed. In this way, each momentary action destroys a myriad of potential social worlds. The stories we tell and the patterns of coordinated actions we engage in are, at last, understood simultaneously as scaffolds for comprehending and moving effectively in our world, and as snares that not only blind us to alternatives but destroy other possible ways to be ourselves, to be in relationships, and to be in community.

“Mystery” is not so much an attempt to describe unnamable things in the world or to know the potential worlds displaced by the worlds we have created together, but is a persistent reminder that the worlds we know are only some of the many that exist, might have existed, or might yet exist and that the lives we live are contingent on the interaction of our choices and circumstances. There is a kind of “liberation” that comes from being aware that there is always something more to every story and that every situation is unfinished (Gergen, 1999, pp. 47-48; Pearce, 1989, pp. 82-86).

The problem is words. Only with words can man become conscious; only with words learned from another can man learn how to talk to himself. Only through getting the better of words does it become possible for some, a little of the time, to transcend the verbal contexts and to become, for brief instants, free. (Shands, 1971, pp. 19-20)

Dialogic communication is one way of achieving what Shands called “getting the better of words.”

Concluding her review of approaches to dialogue in the business setting, Dixon (1996) defined the “purpose” of dialogue as:

The intent to uncover that which is tacit – to become aware of the paradigm in which those individuals engaged in the dialogue are themselves embedded. By making manifest that which has been taken for granted, the participants in the dialogue are able to hold their assumptions up for examination and, when warranted, to construct new joint meaning that is tested against their reasoning. (p. 25)

That is a laudable goal, but it seems only a small part of what a rich appreciation of “mystery” would suggest. Both Dixon’s approach to dialogue and the one that we’ve worked with over the years have in common the importance of reflecting on one’s own assumptions. Our approach, we think, leads to two additional ideas: (a) understanding that one’s own stories are partial, local, limited, or bounded, and (b) realizing the value of remaining in the tension between standing one’s own ground and being profoundly open to the other. For this reason, we have usually thought of listening (rather than introspection or telling one’s own story) as the most powerful opening for creating dialogic communication. Much of our work in designing and facilitating events focuses on modeling and creating the opportunity for participants to listen to others.

The key insight from mystery is that the world is far richer and subtler than any story we have of it, and that it changes because we perceive it, tell stories about it, and act into it. The good news is that the world contains Others who are not only not us but not like us, and that our relationships with them and even our own selves are transformed if we engage with them dialogically.


We began this project with curiosity about a communication approach to dialogue. We posed a counterfactual conditional question: what would have happened if the seminal figures in dialogic thinking and practice had based their work on a formal study of communication? We addressed – rather than answered – this question by reflecting on our own work as dialogic practitioners, noting that our work has been explicitly based on a particular communication theory, the coordinated management of meaning. Based on these reflections, we propose that dialogue can be understood better by articulating the theories of communication on which various concepts and traditions of practice are based. Further, we suggest that new concepts of dialogue and ways of achieving dialogic communication might be found through the elaboration of various theories of communication that we can now access but that were not available to the seminal thinkers in this field.

Working out the implications of theory, or hermeneutically reading the implicit theory presupposed by concepts of dialogue is valuable, but is limited in its impact. Any form of practice – not only dialogic practice -- is affected by the sensibility, vision, and theory of the practitioner; the habits or models that the practitioner has developed; and the constraints and opportunities of the specific situation. Because these are multiple influences, articulating only the sensibilities, visions, and theories of the practitioner are likely to exaggerate the differences between actual ways of working in specific situations. That is, to the extent that practitioners from different schools of thought confront similar challenges and opportunities, their theoretical differences are likely to be eroded.

That having been said, traditions of practice in dialogic communication differ. Specifically, our work has characteristics that distinguish it from other practitioners, and these stem from our grounding in CMM. We make no assumption that the distinctive characteristics of our work make it better or worse than the work by those informed in other traditions. We do, however, know that our ability to act into difficult situations and to know how to go on as practitioners is greatly enhanced by the temperament that leads us to articulate formally the theory of communication upon which we draw.



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Reproduced on authors' web site with permission of publisher.