Category Archives: Dialogue

Pitfalls of Dialogue

Public dialogue, done well, is a work of art, a thing of beauty no less impressive than a fine painting, sculpture or tapestry. A well-crafted dialogue is at its best when the audience becomes participants; the lectern fades and interaction flourishes.

But most events publicized as dialogues don’t meet that expectation, often because they utilize formats that stifle rather than stimulate engagement.

Take the standard panel discussion format, a surefire way to keep the audience limited to being an audience. Most panels begin with each panelist provided with ten or so minutes to make their point, but invariably extending overtime as they attempt to cram in more information than appropriate for their time slot.

Then the audience gets to ask questions, with each panelist feeling compelled to chime in on each question, creating a dead zone of tuned-out audience members bored from listening to the panel talk to itself.

A successful panel should stimulate rather than stultify, and at the Centre for Dialogue we’ve developed a few methods that move panels towards dialogue. For one thing, each panelist is given only five minutes at the start; we charge them with telling one and only one story during this strictly limited time, a story that illuminates an experience that contributes a personal perspective on the meeting’s topic.

We then turn the audience themselves into a large panel, asking them to contribute their stories. Sometimes we encourage a few members of the former audience (now participants) to share their stories with the larger group, or we might ask them to share a story with the person in the next seat.

We handle questions and answers differently as well. We’ll call on an audience member to ask a short question, but limit the response to one panelist and two minutes. Then we turn it around and ask if anyone in the audience would like to answer the same question before moving on to the next query. We’ve also encouraged panel members to come prepared with questions to ask of the audience, reversing the expected direction of interaction.

Another way to kindle good dialogue is using breakout groups, since many more participants can speak at a breakout table of eight to ten than in a larger plenary session. But breakout groups have their pitfalls as well, particularly in how they report back to the larger plenary. The danger is in gruesomely long reporting back that attempts to cover every point discussed, a sure recipe for draining energy out of a room and extending meetings well over their advertised time.

We’ve tried a couple of things that work well for these reports. A notetaker captures all the ideas in breakouts, and then we amalgamate those in the days following the meeting and issue a report. At the meeting itself, we ask each group to decide on their one best idea and report that out verbally in one to two minutes. While we miss ideas from each table, the range of single ideas from all tables usually covers most of the territory discussed at any one table.

A second approach we’ve taken to liven up reporting out is to ask for a one-minute, art-based summary to be presented to the plenary following the breakout session. We’ve seen poems, skits, dance, collage, and songs that vibrantly capture key points from each table, in an entertaining style that is highly participatory and deeply engaging.

These tricks of the dialogue trade all have one thing in common: individuals come together as equals to share the deep wisdom in the room rather than limit their involvement to passively listening to an invited expert or observing a panel perform.

Isn’t that the essence of public dialogue: catalyzing an audience to become participants?

A Long Farewell

A moment took me by surprise this afternoon, although I should have expected it. I am no longer the Director of SFU’s Semester in Dialogue. After 12 years, it was time to pass the torch.

I’ve known this was coming for years, so my departure was not unexpected. Still, today feels quite different from yesterday. It’s always fascinating to see what the sink-in moment will be indicating that life has changed. Mine was saying goodbye for the afternoon to our Secretary Linda Bannister, and suddenly realizing that I wasn’t her supervisor any longer.

I’m not retiring, or even leaving; I have a year-long administrative leave coming up during which I expect to be into work most days, doing some writing and community-based projects I’ve been wanting to get to. I’ll be back teaching in some capacity when my leave is over.

Founding, directing and teaching in the Semester in Dialogue over the last 12 years has easily been the most affecting experience of my working life. The opportunity to mentor, to get to know hundreds of extraordinary students and provide a platform through which they could envision their own futures, has been beyond priceless.

The Semester has introduced me to the cornucopia of characters that make our region thrive, as we’ve had well over 500 community members in as dialogue guests. Urban planners and oil company CEO’s, government officials and anti-poverty activists, First Nations leaders and poets, they and so many others have graced our dialogue table. Their generosity with their time and willingness to interact has motivated our students to do more in the world than they thought they could, and provided role models for how to construct and effective and satisfying life.

I often joke that the Semester in Dialogue might be renamed “Making the World a Better Place,” as we admonish our students to treat their semester as an opportunity to give back to the community and make some positive change happen to the world outside their education.

There’s a Hebrew phrase “Tikkun Olam,” roughly translated as healing or repairing the world, and it’s that spirit that has guided me these many years in the Semester. I have no illusions that I can take much credit for world-healing, but I do know that our students can. The world is indeed better off with the projects, accomplishments and contributions our students have made through their Semester in Dialogue work.

My greatest satisfaction has been through the hundreds of students who found their voice and became more fully themselves through the Semester in Dialogue, who began to think more expansively about how much they could do, grew their motivation to have a positive impact on the world around them and developed skills to be effective agents for change.

I’m not really leaving, but still: all of you involved in the Semester have meant the world to me, and I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am to those many of you who have shared the journey.

Jonathan Swift, Socrates, Bees and Dialogue

I’ve never been overly impressed with the Socratic method as dialogue, although it was described as such in the 399 BCE book Dialogues, in which Plato recorded conversations between Socrates and his disciples.

These are sharp exchanges with pointed and critical probing designed to entrap participants in contradictions. The underlying objective is to win the argument rather than understand the various positions.

The resulting exchanges can be rhetorically brilliant, but they defined the culture of dialogue as oppositional rather than collaborative, with little to differentiate dialogue from debate.

But then my good friend Richard Menkis, a professor at the University of British Columbia, called my attention to a 1704 book by Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books. It’s a satire in which library books come alive and joust verbally about whether the modern age of science was superior to the wisdom of the ancients.

At the core is an argument about whether discourse from a spider or from a bee is superior. The spider is represented as self-aggrandizing, “spins, spits wholly from himself and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without.” The bee, in contrast, works collaboratively to “fill hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.”

The implication is that the work of the ancients is filled with delights of conversation and conclusions arrived at collectively, with each discussant contributing a part of what becomes a greater story by combining the individual perspectives. In contrast, the work of the moderns is self-promoting and self-centered, yielding outcomes technically correct but without the richness and respectful undertones of the ancients.

Swift notes that bees search widely for honey, choosing the best nectars and combining flavors from many flowers that are then mixed and processed together to make honey. And Swift’s view of the Socratic method is very much like that: each participant adding a small bit of wisdom to the conversation, so that in the end the outcome is considerably more profound than any individual contribution.

What a beautiful image of dialogue: participants, like bees, drawing out the nectar of ideas from each other, until the room fills with a well-balanced cornucopia of wisdom, where sweetness and light reside.

Perhaps Socrates was more of a dialoguer than I thought.

Reconciling Injustices in a Pluralistic Canada

The Centre for Dialogue organized an event last week, “Reconciling Injustices in a Pluralistic Canada,” that focused on how we’re all affected by the legacy of injustice, even generations later. For more, see an op-ed piece in today’s (28 January) Vancouver Sun that I wrote:


What’s in a Name?

Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue recognized Chief Robert Joseph of Vancouver Island’s Gwawaenuk First Nation this week with our most prestigious award, the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue (

It’s presented every other year to an individual who has demonstrated, internationally, excellence in the use of dialogue to further the understanding of complex and profound public issues. Chief Joseph is a residential school survivor, who in his own words left the school “broken,” but he gradually emerged from the personal damage to grow into a man of great dignity and courage.

He has done what so many of us struggle with: putting aside anger and working for reconciliation. The award to Chief Joseph recognizes his tireless work to renew relationships among Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, built on a foundation of openness, dignity, understanding and hope.

Listening to Chief Joseph at the award ceremony, I was reminded of one signature outcome that characterizes successful reconciliation: achieving the capacity to fully express who you are without fear of retribution or consequences.

For example, it’s not always been advisable for Jews to be public about our Judaism. My father changed his name from “Weinstein” to “Winston” because when he was a young man in the 1940’s, it was difficult with a Jewish last name to get a job in his chosen field of engineering.

Jews were particularly traumatized after the Holocaust, and the names parents gave their children were designed to disguise our identity, either deliberately or unconsciously. I was named Mark Leslie Winston, and my brother Scott Elliott; most Jewish friends of my age have similarly anglicized names: Richard, Paul, Edward, Frank, John, Linda, Susan, Harriett and Lynn.

But anti-Semitism has receded in North America over the last many decades, allowing a proud blossoming of identity through names. My daughter is Devora Sheina, and the children of our friends have names like Sarah, Shira, Rachel, Jacob, Lavi, Aviva, Jordana, Talya, and Nirit, carrying those names openly and with confidence.

This is one of the healthy outcomes of reconciliation: the capacity to move from the consequences of prejudice and fear to confidence and comfort in expressing every aspect of identity.

We see this happening in many indigenous communities today. It was a stellar moment of reconciliation when British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed to their ancestral name Haida Gwaii, a terminological moment reflecting the brighter future emerging from the recovery of aboriginal identity.

Chief Joseph is fond of a word in his native Gwawaenuk language, ‘namwayut, which means “we are all one.” But ‘namwayut doesn’t mean being the same. One of the key steps in reconciling past injustice is to say that we can be many, each valued for their unique identity.

Canada’s indigenous peoples experienced a grave injustice, denial of their culture and identity, but that is changing. We’ll all be richer as the ancestral names of native Canadians, and the ancient names of the places they inhabited, return.

I look forward to Chief Joseph’s ancestral name, Kwun Kwun Wha Lee Gei Gee (Big Thunderbird) rolling easily on all our tongues.

“Dialogue in Bee Time”

I’m very excited about a new book coming out in the fall of 2014, tentatively titled “Dialogue in Bee Time: Lessons Learned from the Bees” (a title which is quite likely to change before publication). It’s being published by Harvard University Press, and ranges from the spiritual to the practical, environmental concerns to urban planning, art to science. It’s a legacy piece for me, and has been the most joyful way I could imagine to reconnect with bees, domesticated and wild. The press has had the book reviewed, highly favourably I’m pleased to note, and I’m currently working on some suggested revisions. It’s a long way until publication, but do stay tuned. As a teaser, here are the first couple of lines from the prologue.

Prologue: Into the Apiary

 Walking into an apiary is intellectually challenging and emotionally rich, sensual and riveting.

Time slows down. Focus increases, awareness heightens, all senses captivated.