Want more effective action? start with dialogue.

January 13, 2017

Originally published in the Huffington Post

Debilyn Molineaux. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

Our society is forever pushing us to “do something” to leave the world a better place for our children.

Action is valued. Conversation and dialogue seem less important.

How do we decide what action to take? And who do we include in the decision making? Let’s look first at the types of conversations* (as distinct from dialogue) we can identify:

I’ve worked for a couple of top-down companies that delivered actions for employees. We (the employees) knew these actions would not solve the problem (a bad economy) — but would increase micro-management, endless reports and meetings. As employees were shut out of decision-making, most people performed the minimal amount necessary and resented the micro-management. The culture descended into a competitive, uncooperative place where everyone looked out for themselves.

Alternately, I now work with teams that are presented with goals and are connected to the “why” story. We then move through the types of conversations to decide on action. The results vary, but the atmosphere — the very culture — is a team pulling together in the same direction. The experience of being valued and offered a chance to contribute has brought out the best in our team members and produced more satisfying results.

So how does this work in public settings like civic engagement? Public processes such as two minutes at the microphone can feel disempowering. Marching in the streets or signing petitions feeds our need to do something — even if the action is futile.

So where are conversation and dialogue in our public processes? We need activists AND we need a healthy way to decide what action to take (aka conversation and dialogue). It’s not an either/or choice, it’s a both/and decision. I’m constantly holding the tension between the activists (let’s stop talking and do something!) and the dialoguers (we’ve not come to consensus yet to take action.) In truth, we need both mindsets in their healthy forms.


Too often, issues get diluted to a dual choice — a false dual choice where the unhealthy forms of action and dialogue are used as a tactic to win or stymie the argument or issue.

While conversation and dialogue are often used interchangeably, dialogue is distinct, in that the goal of dialogue is understanding so that conversations for action or possibilities can happen. In other words, when relationships are being created or repaired, dialogue is the tool. Remember the hours you spent talking to your friends or new romantic interest? That was dialogue.

“Dialogue is a transformative process — a symmetrical form of communication distinct from conversation, discussion and debate. It is the only interaction where participants act as peers, driven by authentic curiosity and respect rather than power. Power relationships often inhibit the combination and interweaving of ideas that characterize dialogue. Dialogue goes beyond ordinary conversation because it de-emphasizes power, opening a space for people to relate to one another as equals; and through listening, understanding, and learning, create meaning through words.” — Susan Taylor

The point of all this technical talking about talking is to say that dialogue and conversations are the foundation to good relationships, which are the foundations to healthy action in the world. Dialogue IS action, because it’s the first step to a more functional world.