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Toward Dialogic Virtuosity



w. Barnett Pearce and Kimberly A. Pearce


After three years of a city-wide public dialogue process, things were happening that the participants felt could not have happened earlier. As we explored what had changed since the inception of the process, we developed the concept of "dialogic virtuosity. " This concept sensitized us


to differences among ways that other scholars and practitioners use the term "dialogue". While


they had made sharp distinctions between dialogue and other forms of communication


(debate, discussion, and deliberation), we had to invent a vocabulary for distinguishing


among various flavors of dialogue. Using a conceptualization of virtuosity, we explored the


"grand passions" that motivate dialogic practitioners, made "perspicacious distinctions"


among these flavors of dialogue, and described the "abilities needed" to engage in dialogue.


We conclude by suggesting that dialogic practitioners need the abilities to create and maintain


a charmed loop among one s self, the interpersonal relationships among members of the group,


and the unfolding episode. This concept of a charmed loop offers a way of understanding


some of the differences among the various flavors of dialogic practice and descriptions.



"Virtuoso: A person who excels in the technique of doing something, especially


singing or playing music"-Oxford American Dictionary (1980)






irtuosity" is what results when people follow their passions to know something well and to perform skillfully. Although it is typically associated with


the performing arts, there are virtuosos in every form of human endeavor.


Take, for example, seasoned mariners who read tide tables and weather reports with an


intensity that those who have never reefed a mainsail in a storm might fail to appreciate. Being able to read the water to prepare for a header, interpret symbols on a navigation chart and follow the guidance of buoys and lights are aspects of a sailor's virtuosity


that one would want with white water ahead.


Virtuosity in any field combines at least three things: (a) a "grand passion" for what


you are doing, whether sailing, cooking, enjoying fine wines, learning the etymology of


a word, playing chess or bridge; (b) an ability to make perspicacious distinctions (e.g.,


when sailing, knowing the differences among tacking, jibing, falling off, and heading


up); and (c) the ability to engage in skilled performance (e.g., actually being able to


tack,jibe, fall off, head up, stand on course, chart a course, and pick up a mooring).


We became interested in the metaphor of virtuosity as practitioners involved in a multiyear action research project enabling a city to deal more effectively with sensitive and controversial issues. While debriefing a very successful public dialogue meeting on October 15,


1998 (see Spano, in press, for details), several of the residents of the city who had worked as


small group facilitators noted that what had occurred on this night could not have hapW Barnett Pearce, Human and Organizational Development Program, The Fielding Institute; Pearce Associates; Public


Dialogue Consortium; and Kimberly A. Pearce, Department of Speech Communication, De Anza College; Pearce Associates;


Public Dialogue Consortium. Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to the authors at 807 Wharftide


Road, San Mateo, CA 94404, or by electronic mail to


SOUTHERN COMMUNICATIONJOURNAL, Volume 65, Numbers 2 & 3, Winter-Spring 2000












pened earlier in the project. They spoke both of their own skills and of the "readiness" of


the community. As we explored our curiosity about what had changed that enabled this


remarkable event, we began to use the term "dialogic virtuosity" as a way of naming what


these facilitators and the community had now that they did not have three years previously.


We ran into unexpected difficulty as we tried to develop this concept. "Dialogue"


has been a very fertile concept in both the academic and the management literatures,


and we found that we resonate more with some parts of these literatures than with others. Our perception is that there are important and insufficiently described differences


in the concepts and practices currently named as "dialogue." Some of the differences


are intellectual, owing to different conceptual groundings; while others are practical,


responding to the differences in the contexts in which various people work and their


positions within those contexts. Because they are inadequately inscribed, we find it difficult to discern whether these distinctions constitute different forms of practice or


result from adaptations to specific contexts. In an attempt to enhance our own virtuosity in dialogue, we set ourselves to give a close reading of some texts that practitioners


would agree are examples or descriptions of dialogue.


As we reflected on our own work, we realized that we have acted on a set of assumptions that many other practitioners and theorists would not affirm or would want to


quality in important ways. The assumptions that guided our work can be stated like this:


(a) Dialogue is a form of communication with specific "rules" that distinguish it from


other forms. (b) Among the effects of these rules are communication patterns that


enable people to speak so that others can and will listen, and to listen so that others can


and will speak. (c) Participating in this form of communication requires a set of abilities, the most important of which is remaining in the tension between holding your own


perspective, being profoundly open to others who are unlike you, and enabling others


to act similarly. (d) These abilities are learnable, teachable, and contagious. (e) There


are at least three levels of these abilities, including the abilities to respond to another's


invitation to engage in dialogue, to extend an invitation to another to engage in dialogue, and to construct contexts that are conducive to dialogue. (f) Skilled facilitators


can construct contexts sufficiently conducive to dialogue so that participants are


enabled to engage in dialogue in ways they would not without the work of the facilitator.


Our most troubling initial "finding" was that we did not have an adequate vocabulary for naming how beliefs and practices in dialogue are similar to and different from


others. We noted that the writings of Martin Buber figured more prominently in our


work than in that of some other people, and that some of the things that others said


and did fell jarringly on our ears. We suspected that our talk and actions might seem


equally off-key to other dialogic practitioners. Just as we would doubt the virtuosity of a


sailor who cannot distinguish a sloop from a dingy or a musician who cannot differentiate jazz from classical, our inability to name and distinguish among the various traditions of practice in dialogue signaled our lack of virtuosity.


Our own passions about dialogue prompted us to ask questions such as these. What


vocabulary helps us identity and differentiate dialogue from other forms of communication, and to distinguish some forms of dialogue from others? How do we name the


skills that distinguish competent practitioners from those who are clumsy or unsophisticated? What are the similarities and differences among various theorists, practitioners,


and traditions of practice? What are the effects of these differences? We explored these


questions using the metaphor of a dialogic virtuoso who combines grand passions,


makes perspicacious distinctions, and engages in skilled performance.




Practitioners tell many stories about their affinity for dialogue. Some expound a


grand vision of life as it should be; others refer to a particularly captivating experience









that pulls them again and again; and still others tell of having developed an aversion to


nondialogic forms of communication and seeking to explore alternatives. Like all virtuosos, there is something both of compulsion and fascination in what we call the grand


passions of dialogic virtuosity.


The descriptions of these passions are often powerful and sometimes poetic. Over


thirty years ago, Matson and Montague (1967, p. 5) described "dialogue" as the "unfinished third revolution" in communication theory. Those promoting this revolution,


whatever their primary professional discourse, are motivated by a vision that "the end


of human communication is not to command but to commune; and that knowledge of the


highest order (whether of the world, of oneself, or of the other) is to besought and


found not through detachment but through connection, not by objectivity but by intersubjectivity, not in a state of estranged aloofness but in something resembling an act of


love" (Matson & Montague, 1967, p. 6).


For Martin Buber, dialogue is a primary form of relationship, without which human


life is incomplete. The primary words of our being in the world-"I-thou" and "I-it"are "combined" words in which neither component is complete without the other.


These primary words "do not signifY things, but they intimate relations" (Buber, 1958,


p. 4). The "I" of "I-thou" is different from the "I" of "I-it." Buber thought that social life


was distorted toward a preponderance of I-it relations and emphasized what is involved


in a "genuine meeting" with the "other" to whom we relate as a "thou." He said that "all


real living is in meeting" (Buber, 1958, p. 11).


Others see dialogue as a means of bringing about social change. Yankelovich is


quoted on the Public Agenda website ( as saying that when done


"skillfully," dialogue produces extraordinarily important things: "mistrust overcome,


mutual understanding achieved, visions shaped and grounded in shared purpose . . .


new common ground discovered ... bonds of community strengthened." However, one


of the "most serious vulnerabilities" of "our American culture," he added, is "a surprising amateurishness in doing dialogue." We need both will and skill to overcome the


"dialogue deficit" (Yankelovich, 1999). Sanders (1999) reported successes in using "sustained dialogue" as the way to transform relationships and thus deal with racial and ethnic conflicts. Pearce (1993, pp. 62, 71) claimed that dialogue should be the form, not


the content, of the "meta-narrative in postmodern society" in which we can engage with


each other as "others"-not only other-than-us but others who are not like us.


Other dialogic virtuosos are compelled by the memory and/or anticipation of what


Cissna and Anderson (1998, p. 74) called "dialogic moments." In these moments, the


"dialogic partners" share an experience of "inventive surprise ... as each "turns toward"


the other and both mutually perceive the impact of each other's turning. It is a brief


interlude of focused awareness and acceptance of otherness and difference that somehow simultaneously transcends the perception of difference itself." In a presentation at


the International Communication Association convention in May, 1999, John Stewart


described teaching experiences in which he and his colleague Karen Zediker experienced moments of "letting the other happen to me while holding my own ground."


The quality of these moments compels specific directions in the development of both


theory and curriculum (see Stewart & Zediker, 2000). "Dialogic process," according to


McNamee and Gergen (1999, p. 5) has "two transformative functions: first, in transforming the interlocutors' understanding of the action in question ... and second, in


altering the relations among the interlocutors themselves."




Just as musicians can listen to a few bars of music and immediately discern whether


it is rap, swing, rhythm and blues, classical, or jazz, many of us have been trying to learn


how to discern among various kinds of conversations. In a letter (undated) enclosed









with the first issue of Global Dialogue, editor Paul Theodoulou said that this new journal


will "strive to initiate dialogue, presenting both sides of a given topic by setting up a


debate between thinkers of differing or opposed views." Many of us would want to distinguish between dialogue and debate and would think that creating a context in which


issues have two sides and thinkers are identified by their mutual oppositions is more


likely to create debate rather than dialogue (Roth et aI., 1992). Contrasting it with "discussion," Ellinor and Gerard (1998, p. 21), described dialogue as "seeing the whole


rather than breaking it into parts; seeing connections rather than distinctions; inquiring into assumptions rather than justifying or defending them; learning through


inquiry and disclosure rather than persuading, selling or telling; and creating shared


meanings rather than gaining agreement on one meaning."


One move toward dialogic virtuosity is that of distinguishing dialogue from its counterparts (e.g., debate, discussion, deliberation). However, a second move requires the


development of a more sophisticated language in which the differences among the various ,flavors or forms of dialogue itself can be described. Three things have hindered


the development of such a vocabulary for those of us pursuing our passion for dialogue: the fluidity of communication; the rapidity with which traditions of practice have


developed; and the disconnect between theorists and practitioners.


Stewart (1994, p. xiii) described the essential fluidity of communication, noting that


we "still lack a simple vocabulary in which to discuss this collaborative, negotiated,


transactional, relational set of realities." Every proposed vocabulary, including our suggestion of "dialogic virtuosity," carries with it unwanted connotations and imprisons an


emergent, fluid, shape-changing process in too-rigid cases. Those of us who struggle to


describe communication clearly find ourselves wanting to add the phrase " ... and


that's not quite it" as a universal suffix to our statements (see the discussion of "mystery" in Pearce, 1989, pp. 77-87).


The disconnect between practitioners and theorists is partly a function of differences in the pace of events in their forms of life. The lag-time between completion of


an article or book and its publication often spans several important developments in a


tradition of practice. As a result, practitioners seldom find scholarly publications current and scholars are frustrated by the fluidity of traditions of practice. Over thirty years


ago, Matson and Montague (1967, p. 5) noted that "The concept of 'dialogue' ... has


already begun to suffer the inevitable fate of fashionable acceptance-that of dilution


and distortion." Even if we call it "inventiveness and development" rather than "dilution and distortion," it is clear that practitioners (who seldom cite scholarly references


in their work) adapt their practices with far more alacrity than theorists (for whom


scholarly references are their work) adapt their theories.


We are ~onfronted by a profound conundrum. The more accurately we represent the


current state of practice, the more we have produced a description with a short lifespan.


Usually, an attempt to describe "current" practices is obsolete before it is published.


As a result, our efforts to interpret various texts should not be seen as an accurate


description so much as the development of a language permitting description and differentiation of various forms of dialogic practice. In what follows, we make a number of


comparisons and contrasts. Of course, we are not neutral in this process, but our purpose is to contribute to a language capable of perspicacious contrasts, not simply sorting out what we like or agree with from what we do not.


Distinctions among Concepts ofDialogue



Because the texts are more readily available, there has been more work focusing on


describing academic concepts of dialogue than traditions of dialogic practice. Concepts


have been compared on four characteristics: descriptive vs. prescriptive stances, instrumentality, time, and agency.









In his comments at the 1999 lCA convention, Stewart distinguished between


descriptive accounts of all communication that show it to be dialogical and prescriptive


accounts that point to particular and desirable qualities that set "dialogue" off from


other forms of communication. Stewart cited Bakhtin and various proponents of social


constructionism as exemplars of the descriptive stance because they argue that all communication, whether it acknowledges it or not, is contingent, emergent, and responsive. Exemplars of the prescriptive stance are Martin Buber and David Bohm, both of


whom describe characteristics of communication that are not always present and


towards which we should strive.


Dialogic practitioners are sharply divided about the instrumentality of dialogue.


Some see dialogue as an autonomous goal in itself while others see it as a means to


other ends. A contributor to an organizational development listserve who said "NO


kind of decision-making is appropriate for dialogic treatment, since when the purpose


is decision-making, the communication is not dialogue" expressed the end-in-itself


position forcefully. Isaacs (1999) seems to have a more instrumental goal in mind.


Other practitioners focus on dialogue as a practical means of transforming relationships. Even though it is not itself a means of decision-making or negotiation, good


things happen when relationships are improved (Yankelovich, 1999; Sanders, 1999). In


our work in a city, we found that many of our collaborators want to see specific outcomes rather than, as they put it, 'Just talk," and we are intentionally "using" dialogue


as a way of increasing the city's capability to deal productively with difficult issues. Bruce


Hyde captured both of these concepts when, on another dialogue-oriented listserve, he


distinguished between dialogue p which he defined as technique-driven forms of active


listening and decision-making, and dialogue 2 , in which dialogue itself-deliberate,


reflexively-aware collective thinking-is the goal (see Hyde & Bineham, 2000).


Cissna and Anderson (1998, p. 67) called attention to temporal duration of dialogue. They asked, "Is dialogue an unattainable ideal that never occurs, as some skeptics fear, or is it a common or regular state of relationships, an occasional transcendent


quality, or a technique available as often as one wants or needs it?" For the most part,


they answer, scholarly "treatments of dialogue as other than an unattainable ideal tend


to assume that it is a relatively ongoing state." In contrast to this view, Cissna and Anderson (1998, p. 67) suggest that "occasions of dialogue are often quite ephemeral and


fleeting ... dialogue exists in moments."


We applaud Cissna and Anderson's attention to the temporal dimension of dialogue,


and want to posit another point on the continuum. Drawing from our own theoretical


work (Pearce, 1994, chapter 4), we would add "episodes" as a temporal unit longer than


an "ephemeral and fleeting ... moment" and shorter than an "ongoing state." The concept of dialogic episodes intersects somewhat differently with the characteristics of agency


and of instrumentality than does the concept of dialogue as momentary. Examples of dialogic episodes include the work of practitioners in the tradition of the MIT school who


will "do a dialogue," by which they mean a relatively short (perhaps a couple of hours)


communication event that is described as a "container" for a certain quality of communication. Our own work features public and private meetings that last for several hours as


part of a multiyear project whose dominant characteristic is dialogic communication.


We are using the term "agency" to mark the differences between thinking of dialogue as something that happens to us or as something that we make happen. Every


theorist and practitioner that we know would recoil from the notion that anyone of us


can make dialogue happen. Whatever else dialogue is, it is emergent, relational, and


contingent. But this only sharpens the question of to what extent we, individually and/


or collectively, can deliberately call dialogue into being or whether we have to wait and


hope for it to happen. Clearly, there is general agreement that dialogue occurs between


extremes of an all-powerful and a powerless agent. This carefully nuanced description


might stand as a consensual statement:









Human dialogue does not just happen ... but neither can dialogue be planned,


pronounced, or willed. Where we find dialogue, we find people who are open


to it, people who do not renounce it cynically, but no expert technicians can


merchandise or guarantee this relational quality.


Therefore, 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)


We believe that there are some important and yet-to-be articulated differences


within this general consensus. For example, in our perception, practitioners are generally more confident of their ability to call dialogue into being in specific situations than


are theorists. (Of course they are! How else could practitioners do their work!) In addition, those who believe that dialogue is episodic or ongoing are generally more attentive to specific aspects of skillful performance than those who see dialogue as occurring


in fleeting moments or as a culture-wide ideal.


Distinctions Among Traditions of Practice in Dialogue



Three conversational fragments are listed below. In each, we have italicized phrases


used by a dialogic practitioner that some other practitioners will find inconsistent with


their deep grammar about dialogue.


The director of a county's homelessness agency told us of a phone call. ''I'm


coming to the area for a conference, and I want to do some pro bono work. If


you'd like, I'll do a dialogue for you." Puzzled by the phrase "do a dialogue," our


colleague asked, "What do you want me to do?" 'Just arrange a room and bring


the people together," came the reply, "I'll do the rest."


A lively conversation on a listserve of organizational development practitioners


interested in dialogue focused for many days and many turns over the question


of whether expressing disagreement causes us to fall out of dialogue and into discussion or even debate.


In the same listserve, one person wrote (names deleted): "The approach X


described in response to Y's inquiry sounds terrific and yet previously he said


he was frustrated with the results he was getting. I'm wondering why the results


are not yet as he envisions. (Sorry if this inquiry sounds indirect but I was trying


to ask the question dialogically rather than as a direct question to X But X please


answer if inspired.) "


The italicized phrases mark as yet unnamed disjunctures between traditions of practice


in dialogue. Within one or some traditions of practice, asking a direct quest...


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