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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOUTHERN COMMUNICATIONJOURNAL, Volume 65, Numbers 2 & 3, Winter-Spring 2000
THE SOUTHERN COMMUNICATION JOURNAL
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.
GRAND PASSIONS FOR DIALOGUE
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
COMBINING PASSIONS AND ABILITIES
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 (www.publicagenda.org) 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."
MAKING PERSPICACIOUS DISTINCTIONS
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
THE SOUTHERN COMMUNICATION JOURNAL
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.
COMBINING PASSIONS AND ABILITIES
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:
THE SOUTHERN COMMUNICATION JOURNAL
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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