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What is Constructive Dialogue?

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


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, these are not the aims of constructive dialogue.


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 typically lead others to put up their defenses. This dynamic minimizes the possibility of learning, and often damages relationships. By striving to “win,” you’re actually setting yourself up for failure. Instead, try entering conversations with curiosity and the goal to understand. You’ll find it can be contagious.

Not all questions are created equal. Questions that are laced with judgment or are meant to trap someone can quickly undermine dialogue. But questions that invite someone to share something meaningful, are genuinely curious, or seek out the nuances of someone else’s perspective can create possibilities to connect. Be intentional about asking nonjudgmental questions that invite meaningful responses.

Stories move people emotionally. They offer context to facts and figures. And they can allow you to convey your own views without telling someone else their view is wrong. Stories can be a powerful tool to replace frustrating disagreements with constructive ones. Instead of telling someone what you think, tell them a story about why an issue matters to you or how it affects you. And then invite them to do the same.

If tensions rise during difficult conversations, it's important to address what you're experiencing and make room for others to do the same. Explain how you're feeling or why you’re reacting in a certain way – including mistakes you may have made. Acknowledge others' emotions. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re endorsing their view, but it can build trust and understanding.

The commonalities we find with each other – both big and small – can be the glue that holds a conversation together through conflict. Finding what’s shared is about purposefully seeking out those similarities and using them to move forward together, even in the middle of a disagreement.

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