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What is Constructive Dialogue?

Learn more about the form of conversation that can bridge divides and lead to understanding.

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Constructive Dialogue


Constructive dialogue is a form of conversation in which people who have different values, beliefs, and perspectives seek to build new ways to understand and interact with each other, even as they sustain commitments to their own principles and perspectives. The format is ideal for discussing important, complicated issues that can divide people.

Constructive dialogue prioritizes developing mutual understanding – the act of striving to better understand others’ views while feeling that others are striving to better understand yours. Constructive dialogue may lead people to enrich their own perspective or worldview, clarify their differences, discover common ground, or even create the possibility of future collaborative action that may have previously seemed impossible.

Constructive dialogue can be further defined by what it is not. Constructive dialogue is not about persuading others or winning an argument; and it is not about proving the other side wrong. While these may be reasonable goals for other forms of conversation, each disrupts the aim of constructive dialogue.

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Five Principles of Constructive Dialogue

Approaching a conversation like a zero-sum battle, where one side wins and the other loses, sets up an adversarial dynamic that will lead the other person's defenses to go up. This dynamic minimizes the possibility of learning, and it often damages relationships. Recognize that by striving to win, you are actually setting yourself up for failure. Instead, try entering conversations with curiosity and the goal to understand. You will find it can be contagious.

Research from psychology and political science consistently demonstrates that people rarely change their minds about deeply-held beliefs because of facts. Rather, sharing stories about personal experiences can be a powerful way to open up new paths of understanding. Focus on discussing issues through your own experience of them – why an issue is important to you or how an issue affects you. Try to draw out those same insights from others.

Expressing curiosity through questions is a powerful way to deepen a conversation. But questions can shut down dialogue as easily as they can promote it. Think about the difference between, “How can you possibly think that?” and “Can you tell me more about what led you to this view?” The first likely puts someone on the defensive, while the second may open up a new avenue of conversation. Be intentional about asking nonjudgmental questions that invite meaningful reflection.

Often validating someone's feelings about an issue can provide a spark that builds into trust and mutual understanding. It is not always easy, though. Imagine acknowledging someone's strong emotions about a view you really oppose – this can feel quite unnatural. Doing so does not mean you're endorsing their view, but rather, it acknowledges the very real feelings they have and makes them feel heard. This can build trust and may lead them to be more open to your perspective.

Common ground can be found in a variety of places – from small things like shared interests to large things like shared goals or agreement that a particular value matters. Small or large, the connections that common ground creates can be building blocks for forging strong relationships and identifying additional points of connection.

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