Ethical Orientations: Dialogue

Dialogic theory refers to a set of principles and beliefs about how to engage with others using interpersonal communication and conversation. Dialogic theory consists of a body of communication principles that were developed to facilitate interaction between two people, or among small groups of individuals. Dialogue starts from the assumption that various interpersonal communication features (e.g., risk, trust, commitment, mutuality, collaboration, propinquity, positive regard, empathy, etc.) are necessary in order for people to have rewarding, honest, and meaningful interactions.

However, dialogue is more than just polite talk or conversation, but consists of the application of formal communication principles designed to minimize power held by individuals and organizations, to involve all participants in a conversation, and to respect the views and opinions of all participants involved. More importantly, dialogue, unlike deontology or absolutism, is not about being right. Dialogic participants have to be willing to admit when they are wrong, and must be willing to be changed through their interactions. Thus, a dialogic perspective focuses on the attitudes toward others held by the participants in a communication exchange.

People should be treated with respect and not as “others.” “Unconditional positive regard for others” is often used to describe one of the primary features of dialogue. A dialogic ethic assumes that everyone involved in an issue is important, and has a unique perspective that should be valued. Note also: participants in dialogue have their own beliefs and perspectives, and have an obligation to advocate for their position in moderation, not at the expense of others. However, dialogue is not about winning or being right, but coming to a genuine and empathetic understanding of others. Dialogue is a relational ethic.

Additionally, in a dialogue one works to genuinely understand the positions of others so that the best decisions might be made, and to be willing to be changed if it becomes apparent that one’s position is wrong or confused. Contrast dialogue with deontology where no change is possible and where deontologists are unwilling to consider the views of others. Although genuine dialogue involves the application of formal principles of conversation and not simply “talk,” a dialogic ethicist would generally always be willing to listen to others and to take into account multiple perspectives in order to make the best decision. S/he would be open-minded.

Q: Dialogue requires people to admit when they are wrong and try to correct their errors. Why are so many people afraid to admit when they are wrong?

Q: How can you have a conversation involving “unconditional positive regard for the other” with someone who you disagree with such as an activist or protester?

Q: Dialogue requires trust from participants and a willingness to share information and take relational “risks.” Why do these two concepts scare organizations if what they are doing is legal and socially acceptable?

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