I often ask audience members to describe what genuine dialogue feels like.  Here’s some of what I hear:

“Give and take.”


“Paying attention to what each other says.”

“Learning from each other.”


… and many more like that.

Genuine dialogue is a necessary component of a relationship-building encounter. (Check out my free ebook, Encounters, for more information on relationship-building encounters.)  But, so many of our conversations aren’t true dialogue.  They are either monologue or monologue disguised as dialogue.

Try this:  (I’ve been doing it, and it’s been very interesting.)  Pay attention to every conversation you are in, noting where it falls on a continuum from monologue to genuine dialogue.  If a conversation falls short of  genuine dialogue, ask yourself, “Why?”  Did the other person talk without really listening to you? Did you not exactly answer what the other person said, but force-fit your answer into a topic area that you wanted to insert into the conversation?  Were you really talking to each other, or, were you each really just talking to yourselves?

Pay attention.  Share your observations in comments here.  How many of your conversations each day are genuine dialogue?  What conditions or situations make genuine dialogue easier, and which make it harder? How are outcomes influenced by the presence, or lack thereof, of genuine dialogue?  How does dialogue contribute to relationship-building encounters?


  • Susan
    May 17, 2009 - 18:21 pm

    I just went for a walk with a nursing student. She was complaining that she had just learned in her psychology class that when a patient says “I feel depressed,” (e.g.,), she should simply respond, “You feel depressed?” She protested that this isn’t real human interaction. I hope that when I’m sick, she is my nurse.

  • Amanda Cullen
    May 18, 2009 - 09:50 am

    To me, genuine dialogue feels like a connection. If we are truly communicating, we are both seeing the same truth in the same way. With monologue, there is no feedback mechanism and no way to adjust our perspective to match our listener’s.

    Interestingly, Susan’s nurse’s psychology class seems to be trying to fake dialogue. If we rephrase someone’s statement as a question, it looks like we’re making a connection and seeing things the same way as the other person.

  • Clemens Rettich
    May 18, 2009 - 17:33 pm


    I really liked the statement identifying “…force-fit[ing] your answer into a topic area that you wanted to insert into the conversation?”

    In my coaching conversations with clients (and conversations are the very heart of my practice!) when I tend to slip into ‘directing’ the dialogue it is often because I do not fully trust my client, myself, or our relationship. Conversing from a place of trust in each other and in the power of open conversation is critical, but requires constant practice.


  • Steve Yastrow
    May 18, 2009 - 23:38 pm

    Great comments – thanks. The nursing student is noting the obvious: that there a canned reaction is not a human reaction.

    Clemens is right that conversation takes practice. We need to look at every conversation as a chance to practice, which is why I always like to have the Genuine Dialogue-ometer” on. As they say with yoga, “practice makes practice.”

  • Dan Gunter
    May 27, 2009 - 11:52 am

    Dialog vs. Discussion…

    One of the best treatments I’ve seen on this subject can be found in the book “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,” by Peter Senge, et al. As they explain (paraphrasing and abbreviating slightly):

    The word “dialog” comes from two Greek roots, “dia” (meaning “through” or “with each other”) and “logos” (meaning “the word.”)

    They go on to explain dialog as “a sustained collective inquiry into everyday experience and what we take for granted.”

    Contrast the above to “discussion,” which stems from the Latin “discutere,” which meant “to smash to pieces… that promotes fragmentation.

    So often what we engage in counterproductive discussion, totally missing out on the benefits of true dialog which, as they point out, is a true “collective inquiry.” Collective: working together. Inquiry: asking questions and exploring. Hmmm… sounds like a better option to me.

  • MacDonald Chaava
    Jul 27, 2009 - 08:50 am

    Thanks for a great topic.
    Here are my reflections on the topic. Daily I have tons of discussions (see Dan’s descriptions above) and very few conversations as opposed to dialogue. Here is a sample of my reflections of community in conversation and my comments below: http://www.webook.com/project/Community-Capacity-Building-through-Conversation.
    I think the rules are the same for all forms of conversation: conversation involves a degree of truth telling. Most conversations that I engage in are hardly ever linear, we can be talking about one thing now but the next moment something else. In the examples of “Community in conversation” given above, it took a trained and experienced facilitator to keep the focus on a particular subject. In real-life “conversations” we do not engage facilitators. The degree to which “truth” is told in a conversation is equivalent to the successful outcomes of a conversation. A great conversation has a high degree of truth telling.
    Thanks for a great site.

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