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?