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Building a Culture of Dialogue (among other things)

by Tom Atlee

In human societies there will always be differences of views and interests. But the reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue. The promotion of a culture of dialogue and non-violence for the future of mankind is thus an important task of the international community.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama
in a speech to the "Forum 2000" Conference,
Prague, Czech Republic, 4 September 1997

The task of building a co-intelligent culture is different from many other kinds of social change and utopian vision because there's no arrival, not even in our dreams. The "final result" is a culture that can keep on going, a sustainable, co-evolutionary culture that can learn from its experience and adapt and create in harmony with its circumstances. That means that such a culture will be always changing. Of course, our culture is already changing -- but those changes are not coming from people learning and visioning together, as a culture, as whole communties. That's what we need to change most -- the amount of conscious, collective intelligence at work. And we can start doing that right now, right here, wherever we are.

Mostly this involves creating what the Dalai Lama calls "a culture of dialogue." A culture of dialogue is one in which people habitually gather together to explore their lives, their differences, their dreams. Every facet of such a culture would contribute to people learning together, building healthy relationships with each other and the natural world, and co-creating better prospects for their shared future.

In a moment I will explore at some length what might be involved in that. But first I want to suggest that economics will likely play a significant role. I wonder if a culture of dialogue can be a mass-consumption culture such as the one that dominates our world today. Individual and collective reflection and creativity take time -- and who has such time when they're entrained to the hectic pace of the nanosecond, the soundbite and the drumbeat storyline of news, infoglut, soap opera, sitcom, movies, the latest, the newest, the best? Co-intelligence requires community, some sort of stable interconnection, people knowing each other and committed to each other -- exactly the conditions that are undermined by anonymous, temporary global market relationships that ask only "what is the price?" and steady erode the local, the interpersonal, the mutually answerable, the ecologically and culturally responsive.

We might also be concerned that the concentration of economic power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations, families and individuals is leading to less co-intelligent media, politics, education, justice and many other systems that powerholders are restructuring to reinforce their power. I am not sure how co-intelligent -- or sustainable -- any system can be when a small part of it manipulates 90% of the system's resources for the benefit of that part.

I suspect that one of the greatest contributions to building a co-intelligent culture will be the evolution of economic systems that are less monetary and more ecological, community-based, simplicity-oriented. Such economic systems would help us value quality of life over quantity of stuff. Such systems would utilize our powerful technologies not to dominate nature, but to help us work with nature -- and not to make our lives more hectic, but to give us the freedom from meaningless toil we've been promised since the dawn of the Industrial Era, so we can creatively fulfill our best potential, individually and collectively.

This is a gigantic subject which I can only hint at here. But I want to at least raise this issue before I proceed to more direct efforts to build a co-intelligent culture of dialogue. The creation of that culture will probably require a change in our economics -- and a change in our economics will probably only come about through our efforts to build a culture of dialogue. The two are necessary conditions for each other, and so will likely evolve together, step by step.


Why do I consider creating a culture of dialogue so important? A well-developed culture of dialogue is a prerequisite

We need widespread, high quality dialogue to generate shared understandings around many issues. We need to explore:


I find the most useful definition of dialogue is "shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection and possibility." I think this form of communication offers us the most hope for shifting from our collective downward spiral to an upward spiral.

By definition, dialogue must be two-way or multi-directional communication where those involved are not trying to limit their -- or each other's -- understanding, connection or options. This requires a level of peerness which must sometimes be fought for.

Let us say that Mr. Smith is always trying to get the best of Ms. Jones. He takes advantage of her efforts to understand, connect with and generate agreeable possibilities with him. When it becomes clear that he refuses to enter into real two-way dialogue with her, I believe Ms. Jones is totally justified in co-intelligently fighting to change the situation. When I say fighting co-intelligently, I mean that she can fight for the opportunity to have a real dialogue, not for the opportunity to get the best of Mr. Smith. She isn't fighting to win a victory for her perspective, but rather to create a situation in which they treat each other like real human beings capable of respectfully finding a resolution to their problems together. In that fight, she forcefully tries to generate greater understanding, connection and options. The more intelligence, communication and empathy she manages to use, and the less force, the more co-intelligent her fighting can be said to be. Ideally, she would use the exact amount -- and the right type -- of force required to stimulate real dialogue in her situation.

Gandhi was a master of using nonviolent force to establish peerness and real dialogue. Occasionally his opponents would be undermined or distracted by some other battle and, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to push home to victory for his own side, Gandhi would step back, or even ally himself with his erstwhile opponent in that other battle. When the other battle was over, Gandhi would resume his fight for peerness. He wanted to win hearts and minds through real dialogue on the merits of the issue. He was not interested in winning at the expense of others. He didn't use force to settle disputes, so much as to establish the respect, peerness and dialogue needed to find the best solution together.

In addition to peerness, another usual precondition for real dialogue is a shared belief that shared exploration towards some shared benefit can occur. If in my head I am telling myself that I have nothing in common with you and you are only out for your benefit or my demise, I have no reason to talk with you. Or if the only sort of talking I've ever experienced is fight-to-win; I would not likely engage in much dialogue with you.

Here third parties can be especially valuable. A diplomat may shuttle back and forth between two warring factions. She gets to know them, gets to know their needs and positions, looks for some possible realm of connection between them, makes it clear that she, at least, understands the legitimacy of their claims. Slowly she starts to introduce understandings, connections and possibilities that might -- just might -- be shared. She paints the possibility -- no guarantees, mind you -- that there just might be some benefit in talking. Slowly the parties agree to come together, at which point the diplomat turns it over to (or takes on the job of) mediator, whose role is to stimulate real face-to-face shared exploration.

There's a practice called consensus organizing, in which community organizers learn all they can about the "downtown interests" (the local powerholders) and about the community and its grassroots leaders. The downtown interests and grassroots community leaders often oppose each other and tell themselves and their associates stereotyped stories in which their opponent plays an ineffective or malevolent role. Consensus organizers try to identify a project -- such as a job training program -- that is of interest to both the community leaders and downtown interests. Then they engage the parties in real dialogue about that program only, leading to productive collaborations and new relationships. Later, those relationships can be used to make real progress on other community issues, since the stereotyped us-vs-them stories have been replaced with a belief in the possibility of shared exploration and shared benefits.

A third example of this "setting the stage for dialogue" is The Public Conversation Project in which family systems therapists bring together pro-life and pro-choice activists to share the stories that led them to feel as strongly about the abortion issue as they do, and to share the nuances in their personal feelings about the minutia of this complex issue. In this process, the oversimplified stories they've told themselves about each other get replaced with more complex real-human stories. Other similar efforts have resulted in abortion activists on both sides dialoguing enough to develop shared projects such as youth pregnancy counselling and adoption services.

Another barrier to believing that real dialogue is possible is the fact that so few people have ever experienced it. The only solution that I know of for this is to provide opportunities for receptive people to undertake dialogue and then use their stories -- especially videos -- of what happened to convince others to try it. Many thousands of skeptical people have entered the world of dialogue through exactly that route.

So, to build a culture of dialogue, we need to


The sorts of dialogue we want are:

As well as these levels of dialogue, there are three realms of dialogue about public issues that are particularly significant in a democracy.


I see at least three great realms of public conversation in most cultures. The first two are well known and broadly recognized as such. They are:

The third great realm of public conversation is not widely recognized as a distinct realm. This is the realm of what I call proxy discourse, where real or imaginary characters have conversations in the public view in such a way that people watching can enter into the conversation vicariously -- often identifying with one or more of the participants -- and process the issues of public life in much the same way as they would were they actually participating in the conversation.


(Note: I will say more about this model shortly. But I want to note that I believe yet another realm needs to be added; I just can't grasp exactly what it is and what its role is. My hunch centers on the role of corporations in shaping discourse in a democracy. "Corporations," however, don't constitute a realm. So, on the one hand, this realm that's missing from my model may have something to do with organizations (for-profit, non-profit, interest groups, etc.) or, on the other hand, it may have something to do with the market and the role of money. The exchange that takes place in a market is analogous to the exchange that takes place in a conversation. And collective market "decisions" do play a powerful and increasing role in shaping our culture -- even as the role of government decisions declines. However, this is at the edge of what I can grasp, and I haven't yet fit it into this model or seen another way to frame all this that includes these factors. You are invited to help sort this out, if you'd like. In the meantime, I shall continue with just the three realms described above.)

Now let's consider the role of dialogue in the evolution of democracy.


Democracy is grounded in individual rights and the nonviolent political struggle for power among interest groups. Emerging from the Enlightenment, democracy can be considered a political analog of Newton's vision of a world self-organized by discrete objects acting on each other through the exertion of forces. Such a world didn't need to be organized by an all-powerful mystical God. The interplay of dumb but lawful forces sufficed.

However, the political analog needed a minor adjustment. Since the interacting objects in the political realm are people and groups -- not planets or levers -- democratic societies are organized -- at least theoretically -- by the interplay of intelligences and social power, not by the brute force of kings and dictators or the mystical powers of the church and superstition.

In a 1937 speech entitled "Democracy as a Way of Life," John Dewey said:

"The foundation of democracy is faith in... human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience... to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action.... [E]ach individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as [it] enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all."

This, better than anything I could write, describes the co-intelligent essence of democracy at its best.

Democracy constitutes a dramatic leap forward in social organization for complex societies. Now I want to extend its self-organizing, intelligence-based essence into new forms -- to suggest that democracy might evolve into something even more remarkable, to a point where it can no longer be adequately described by the word democracy. I want to suggest that the caterpillar of democracy may someday metamorphose into the butterfly of a thoroughly co-intelligent culture. If this is indeed in our future, we may soon find ourselves in a transitional stage neither fully co-intelligent nor obviously democratic, but confusing, exciting and constantly shifting.

Since the prefix "meta-" implies transformation, transcendence, and a higher stage of development, I call this stage metademocracy. I believe the development of metademocracy can be encouraged by three changes:

  1. an increase in dialogue and consensus in all realms of conversation -- i.e., the development of a culture of dialogue, as described above;
  2. an expansion and empowerment of the realm of proxy dialogue, in particular; and
  3. increased dialogue between public, governmental and proxy realms, until they are ultimately integrated into one systemic collective intelligence.

In this effort, I believe the point of greatest leverage is point 2 because, by its very nature, a little proxy dialogue goes a long way. Theoretically, a proxy dialogue including representatives of diverse national stakeholder groups or randomly-selected citizens could be viewed by everyone in a nation, as is proposed by Jim Rough's Citizens Amendment. Participants in such a dialogue (the proxies) could have access to information, options and process facilitation that 99% of the population would never have. By watching these diverse proxies exploring an issue together, the broader population could vicariously join them in discovering new understandings, unexpected empathy and the realization that great things are possible if they continue exploring and working together.

In an integrated system of dialogue, viewers of such a proxy dialogue would then engage with their friends, neighbors and associates about it. They would see it discussed in the media. Experts would research the questions raised by the proxy dialogue and the deliberations of government would be influenced by it.

For maximum impact, such a proxy dialogue would be presented in compelling multi-media. There would be background human-interest stories about the participants. There would be dramatic descriptions of the conflicts they had -- with all the emotion involved -- and how they moved through them. There would be analyses of what they came up with and why. There would be color photos, poems from schoolchildren, plays (like Twelve Angry Men, about a jury deliberation), MTV-style clips, and fully indexed transcriptions on the Internet -- anything and everything that would help the population vicariously go through what the participants went through, and then move on to live dialogues of their own.

And remember, these won't be just discussions and debates. The impact of proxy dialogues will go beyond the topics they explore; observers will note a totally different quality of conversation. It is reasonable to expect that more and more people would try it out. As Jim Rough points out:

The Wisdom Council sets up a new kind of conversation, one that is not a special interest battle. It is a conversation where people seek consensus on what is best for everyone. First, these are ordinary people like you and me, not representatives. They are free to say what is on their mind and to change their minds. The group doesn't have to agree or disagree with some predefined issue. They can seek the real, underlying issues and reach consensus on problem descriptions, as well as solutions. Second, a skilled facilitator can assure what I call a "choice-creating" conversation, one that is respectful of all views, which seeks creative resolutions.

This new kind of political conversation will take place on the nation's center stage, displacing the normal political and legal arguments. Schools, editorial pages, and back porch talking will continue the new dialogues, developing a more informed and involved public. Plus, over the years, the conversation will build and articulate a national consensus.

I suspect that nothing is more important to our collective survival and accomplishment than creating co-intelligent societies.

I suspect that nothing is more important in creating co-intelligent societies than creating a culture of dialogue.

And I suspect that nothing is more important in creating a culture of dialogue than to place real dialogue about the compelling social issues that effect us all right in "the nation's center stage" where all of us can see it and absorb this new sense of what is possible among us.

* In response to an inquiry regarding what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi is reported to have replied, "I think it would be a good idea." ([return to text])