Dialogue is dying. Here’s how you can save it.

Nov 22, 2021, 4:30 PM


Happy mature couple informing themselves about health insurance while talking to a doctor at clinic.

SALT LAKE CITY — With Thanksgiving days away, families will gather around a table to talk. But will the talk be real dialogue or debate? What’s the difference?  Utah State University professor Scott Hammond of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business joins Inside Sources host Boyd Matheson to talk about the value of dialogue and how to distinguish it from debate.

Boyd asked if dialogue was dead.

Hammond said we are trained to be comfortable with an oppositional approach to talking to each other as opposed to listening and sharing viewpoints. He pointed out many lawmakers in Congress and in politics are trained as lawyers with the mindset of either your side or my side.

“And so yeah, it’s dead and dying,” he said. 

What is the difference between debate and dialogue? Boyd asked.

In debate, there are two sides. In dialogue, there are many sides, he said.

Dialogue is a discovery, in which a person declares that he or she doesn’t know.

“In a dialogue, you sit there and you say, ‘I don’t fully understand this problem.’ I have to come in and display my ignorance, not that I’m right,” Hammond said.

Not knowing is a precondition for dialogue, he said.

Boyd said he likes the curiosity and humility needed for dialogue as opposed to the defensive crouch required for debate.

“To say, ‘I’m not sure I know it all.’ And then you can actually get information from all points of the compass,” he said.

Politics of dialogue

In politics, both sides debate the solution before even having a dialogue about the problem, Hammond said. 

“And that’s not a good place to start,” he said.

It’s not just politics, Boyd replied.

“In our homes, in our businesses, in our communities, so often we start with here’s the solution. And someone says ‘Well, no, here’s the solution.’ And we waste so much time, so much emotional energy that we often never get around to actually having the conversation about the real issue,” Boyd said.

Complex problems require many voices

Also, Hammond pointed out, starting with the solution oversimplifies complex problems, such as climate change.

“So many of the problems we’re facing today are really complicated. . … To say there’s a liberal side and a conservative side or a Republican and Democratic side — to just polarize it that way. We’re not going to get very far if we think of those complex problems that way,” he said.

Listen to a non-expert

Starting with the solution also precludes other voices that need to be heard. Families and companies that master dialogue, Hammond said, have an advantage over those who do not. There are perspectives that even the so-called experts can’t foresee. And that’s why every voice counts.

He said there is a Zulu tribe in South Africa that begins its dialogue with the youngest member.

“They know that if they start with the oldest person or the most experienced voice or you’re the loudest voice, they’re not going to get the great ideas that it really takes to get a dialogue going,”  Hammond said.

When you begin with the many perspectives and voices of dialogue, solutions begin to form and emerge — things that individuals can’t see and only groups can see, he said. 

“And then you don’t have a commitment problem because when you build it together, it’s not hard to convince people to move forward with that solution,” Hammond said.

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app. 

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Dialogue is dying. Here’s how you can save it.