Practicing the Discipline of Dialogue

September 6, 2023 – Approximate Read Time: ~13 minutes

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by Tom Klaus

The Takeaway: The Discipline of Dialogue is a means of establishing “valid communication” which means that participants in a dialogue are using words in the same way and are holding the same images and ideas or mental models in their minds. The purpose of dialogue is to inform and to learn and dialogue is a discipline that needs to be learned before it can be practiced effectively. Learning the discipline of dialogue also requires interaction with at least one other person: a person who holds an opposing viewpoint.

The Discipline of Dialogue is not discussion, conversation, consensus building, sharing, problem solving, negotiation, mediation, discourse, storytelling, or debate. It has no fixed agenda, and its purpose is not to convince others, evaluate ideas, or justify and defend assumptions (Maiese, 2003). The purpose of dialogue is, simply, to inform and to learn.

The Discipline of Dialogue refers to a specific practice described by social psychologist Edgar Schein (2003). Schein’s approach is characterized by a reflective communication process that allows individuals to identify the “culturally learned assumptions and categories of thought” that makes it difficult for them to hear and understand others (Schein, 2003, p. 33). Assumptions and categories create filters through which opponents in a conflict hear and experience the other. As a result, each will unconsciously bias and distort the perception of the other. Schein’s (2003) approach is to use suspension, a reflective act through which we can become aware of when our own assumptions and categories get in the way of our ability to hear and understand our opponents.

In this way dialogue is first an internal conversation before it becomes an external one. Through the technique of suspension, we first listen to ourselves to become aware of our perceptions and misperceptions of others, become conscious of our own thought process that create those perceptions, and then acknowledge the effect of our perceptions and process on how and when we choose to engage the other (Schein, 2003). As participants in a dialogue, we first examine our own presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that influence the interaction we have with others. Then we are able to examine, understand, and interrupt, when needed, the ways we make communication better or worse. Maiese (2003) notes:

This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it (What is dialogue, para. 14).

The goal of dialogue is to help us more clearly and deeply understand another’s concerns, fears, and needs (Maiese, 2003). Dialogue does this by creating valid communication (Schein, 2003). Valid communication means that participants in a dialogue are using words in the same way and are holding the same images and ideas or mental models in their minds (Schein, 2003). Only with dialogue “is it possible to determine whether or not the communication that is going on is valid” (Schein, 2003, p. 29). As a result, through valid communication, dialogue builds trust and facilitates the management of ideological differences and similarities that are useful in Pursuing a Third Way.

To be clear, Schein’s (2003) dialogue is not a conflict resolution technique that ends cultural conflict in the midst of a Culture War. Instead it can create the conditions by which the conflict can be managed more productively and even moderated:

When dialogue works, the group can surmount the creative abilities of its individual members and can achieve levels of creative thought that no one would have initially imagined. Dialogue is thus a vehicle for creative problem identification and problem solving (Schein, 2003, p. 30).

Dialogue is, though, a pre-condition to conflict resolution and problem solving when there appear to be differences too great to settle (Maiese, 2003). Dialogue can assist parties to bridge the “moral empathy gaps” that prevent them from feeling what the other feels (Ditto & Koleva, 2011, p. 331). It unleashes the creativity of people to address and manage their differences and similarities through reflective self-awareness, listening without prejudice and fear, clear and valid communication, deeper understanding, empathy, and, ultimately, trust. It is upon this foundation that efforts can then be made to negotiate specific issues such as common ground, consensus, and resource sharing. Dialogue is, according to Schein (2003, p. 29), “at the root of all effective group action.”

Dialogue is a discipline that needs to be learned. The skills of dialogue include:

  • internal listening,
  • accepting differences,
  • confronting one’s own and others’ assumptions,
  • revealing feelings,
  • trust building, and
  • identifying and creating new shared assumptions (Schein, 2003).

Key to dialogue is the effective use of suspension. Suspension is the act of waiting and listening before speaking or responding, especially when you believe your point has been misunderstood or misrepresented. By waiting with our perceptions, feelings, judgments, and impulses rather than reacting, we are able to learn if our perception is accurate or observe if further conversation clarifies the point without our responding (Schein, 2003).

The skill of suspension is similar to a key skill learned by therapists. Mental health therapists are often taught to listen and then “hold” before responding to a client. During the time of holding onto what had been shared by the client, the therapist is expected to consider what had been heard in relationship to their own cognitive and affective responses to it. By holding, or suspending, in this way, the therapist is able to formulate a genuine, empathic, and therapeutic response that demonstrates understanding, yet is not tainted by their own reaction, whether negative or positive, to the client’s disclosure.

Having a skilled facilitator is important to learning dialogue (Schein, 2003). When applied to the task of understanding and managing ideological conflict, the facilitator needs considerable substantive knowledge and deep familiarity with both ideologies to act as a translator from one group to the other (Docherty, 2001). Learning the dialogue also requires interaction with at least one other person. For these reasons principal leaders caught in the fog of Culture War are not able to learn dialogue alone. They will need to willingly participate in an experience of dialogue with at least one other person holding an opposing ideology. That experience needs to be facilitated by someone who is practiced in dialogue. This will support the practice of dialogue and prevent it from devolving into either an argument or just a shallow conversation.

Those who practice leadership can welcome this recommendation for Practicing the Discipline of Dialogue because it supports one of the most important tasks of leaders. The Discipline of Dialogue has elements of the practice of sensemaking which is a critical function of anyone who practices leadership. Through their reflective efforts to make sense of the contentious context in which they work, and the self-examination that leads them to a sense of convincement about their own positions, leaders in this study demonstrated the basic capacity to engage in dialogue that can lead to a Third Way. Pollis (1985, p. 286) noted “the notion of worldview provides a vehicle for understanding why debates on the content and methods of sexuality education are frequently like ships passing in the night with participants talking past, rather than with, one another.” All that is needed to begin Pursuing a Third Way in this, and other, intractable conflicts is for leaders to steer their ships toward one who holds a position in the conflict that is different from their own, for the purpose of engaging in dialogue.  

Four insights and recommendations for those practicing leadership in the midst of controversy emerged from my study of principal leaders in sexual health organizations. Management Resilience, Management Muscle recommends leaders and organizations become intentional about building, strengthening, and distributing management tasks to allow leadership to focus on productively managing cultural controversy. Expanding the Imagination of Leadership recommends leaders more fully embrace the complexity of their work and environment by learning to use an adaptive leadership approach to creatively imagine and innovate the solutions they need with others. Pursuing a Third Way recommends breaking the cycle of institutionalized cultural conflict by willingly seeking an alternative way to address it. Practicing the Discipline of Dialogue recommends a way of Pursuing a Third Way by learning and engaging in Schein’s (2003) model of dialogue.

Each recommendation is straight forward, and each is reasonable, for those who practice leadership. Acted upon alone, and separately, each recommendation has the potential for strengthening leaders and making modest contributions to changing the cultural conflicts in which they work. However, taken together, and acted upon as a whole, these recommendations can have a profound impact. This greater impact will be seen in the quality of leadership in organizations, groups, and whole communities caught up in the midst of Culture War. Even more, the impact will be seen as principal leaders, courageous followers, and responsible others who act as leaders, take steps, together with their opponents, to reclaim civility, and innovate fresh solutions to heal the wounds and bridge the divides of the cultural conflict that threatens us today.

As I was thinking about this series and reviewing what I wrote a decade ago, I was struck by how relevant the recommendations remain today. Also, I came to see something that had not been clear to me before. One of the reasons I started Tenacious Change in 2013 was as a response to what I learned in this study. Over the past 10 years, Tenacious Change has been helping organizations, groups, and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada become more resilient, effective, and durable, even as they became more civil and caring, especially to those who are the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. The journey to achieving these outcomes runs through the wilderness of controversy and conflict. At Tenacious Change, we don’t want you to feel alone in that wilderness. This series was intended to give you a better understanding of what you can do to manage controversy and conflict. I realize that it may not be enough. When you need more, let us know. We are here.

Do you have a question about something you are reading in this series? Send it to us at We’ll address it at the end of the series. Thanks!

  • Ditto, P. H. & Koleva, S. P. (2011). Moral empathy gaps and the American culture war. Emotion Review, 3(3), 331-332.doi: 10.1177/1754073911402393
  • Docherty, J. S. (2001). Learning lessons from Waco: When the parties bring their gods to the negotiation table. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Maiese, M. (2003, September). Dialogue. Beyond Intractability. G. Burgess & H. Burgess (Eds.). Retrieved from
  • Pollis, C. A. (1985). Value judgments and world views in sexuality education. Family Relations, 34(2), 285-290.Retrieved from
  • Schein, E. H. (2003). On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning. Reflections: The SoL Journal, 4(4), 27-38.

What You Need to Know About Our Move to Substack

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Scheduling for Fall 2023 and Winter 2024

Okay, Summer is just about over, and it is time to get down to business again, right?

So, isn’t it time for you to talk with us about how Tenacious Change can help your group? We can help with strategy planning, creating movements for change, developmental evaluation, preparing for controversy, and in other ways, too. Looking for more or something different? Use the button below to schedule a time to talk.

Also, visit our website to learn more about everything we offer. You can even download and share this handout with your colleagues. Then schedule a time to talk to us.

Now Available!

Preparing for Controversy in the Fog of (Culture) War does not hold all the answers but it has some that will be helpful. It will help you understand:

  • the difference between a controversy and a conflict
  • the stages of conflict
  • the cycle of intractable conflict
  • the value and importance of Strategic Controversy Management
  • when to intervene so that a controversy does not become a conflict
  • how to slow or stop a controversy, even a conflict, when it occurs

Ninety-one percent (91%) of people completing the evaluation after the live April 2023 seminar told us they felt more confident in their ability to manage controversy as a result of participating in the seminar. Specifically, here’s what they told us how they benefited most from it:

  • Five big steps in controversy management.
  • The rules of civil conversation.
  • Understanding how controversy and conflict are different now from the 90’s and understanding where and how conflict can be deterred.
  • Learning about when more people are likely to “get on-board” with your issue. This helped me think about where my energy and efforts can be used more effectively.
  • Tom’s historical observations about the Culture War and how things have changed…or not changed.
  • The cycle of intractable conflict.

In addition to the video, there are downloadable PDF resources. All are available at no cost, though you will be asked to sign a guest book before accessing the video and downloads.

Click on the link below to see a brief trailer video and then access the full video and all resources.

What Controversy Could be Brewing In Your World?
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Please follow this link (or click on the button below) to complete a brief Google form where you can tell us.

  • What controversies are emerging that you might be able to head off?
  • What controversies are you actually facing at this time?
  • Can you share a situation with us that we can turn into an anonymous “case study” and explore in an upcoming blog?
  • What specific questions do you have about getting prepared for controversy or managing controversy?

Remember, you can also access our video Preparing for Controversy inthe Fog of (Culture) War on our website and we also offer a day-long training event on managing controversy – on-site or online.

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