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Talking With a Purpose: When Dialogue is Not Just Talk


Few words receive more attention in the media when great issues are at stake. Often, the word is modified, as in “high-level dialogue.” Of course, when used this way it generally refers to diplomatic conversations between high-profile leaders.

In one of his first addresses, Pope Benedict XVI calls for “more dialogue” between Roman Catholics and Muslims. The All Africa Conference of Churches urges the Togo “government and the opposition to embrace dialogue and shun bloodshed.” In China, the People’s Online Daily calls for a China-Japan dialogue to “resolve disputes and narrow differences.”

But in communication for social change, dialogue is not reserved only for high-profile, high-level, media-spotlight or diplomatic initiatives. It is a process owned by everyone, possible in every community and demanding that every voice has a right—and a need—to be heard. Dialogue prompts action. Without action, the CFSC process can stall.

Dialogue lies at the heart of the definition of communication for social change:

CFSC is a process of public and private dialogue through which people themselves define who they are, what they need and how to get what they need in order to improve their own lives. It uses dialogue that leads to collective problem identification, decision making and solutions to development issues. It is communication that supports decision-making by those most affected by the decisions being made.

What do we mean by CFSC dialogue?

First, it is not just talk or conversation or gossip. It is talk with a purpose.

But what is the purpose?

Is it, as with a debate, to win an argument? Or is it, as with a discussion in a training workshop, to educate the students about the instructor’s knowledge? Or is it, as with a change campaign, a focus group designed to find the best ways to persuade people to adopt a predetermined behaviour?

No, these are not the primary purposes of social change dialogue.

The purpose and value of dialogue to the CFSC process are to create a safe space that enables all participants to hear each other more fully, to think creatively and to focus on the web of information, convention, values and obstacles that influence their actions. That web includes cultural practices, traditional stories, as well as how the community thinks, believes, talks, acts and teaches its children about the issues confronting them. These community norms are often taken for granted, so they are invisible unless the group looks for them. The path to change starts with dialogue that helps people visualize the change they want to make.

Communication for social change dialogue is the process of understanding together, thinking together and seeing together the path to change and the steps the community can take to make change a reality.

Dialogue defined this way is different from other forms of talk. It serves to make the invisible, visible. It enables people to develop an awareness about the realities of power, about beliefs and customs that influence people’s daily lives and about the collective power to make change. With dialogue, people can act on what they come to understand about each other and the issues they face. They can create understanding and reveal a path to building and sharing power first within the group, and, later, with others.

The Consortium supports communicators and community facilitators around the world who are engaging in the dialogue process in a variety of ways, including workshops that begin with a focus on recognizing, appreciating and critiquing the private and public dialogue in their own culture.

We help them identify methods for including more voices, expanding the number and scope of dialogues, linking them and using them to set and achieve goals. The Consortium, through its global network of CFSC practitioners, can help communities build individual and collective capacity for dialogue by offering training in areas the community wants and needs. These may include ways to access information and to evaluate it; methods for asking and answering questions; channels that are effective for addressing issues of policy and power; and a host of tools, ranging from the logistics of place and agenda, to skills in listening, presenting ideas, negotiating, documenting, monitoring and evaluating.

Communication for social change supports action-level dialogue through which people identify and implement solutions to their problems and take control and ownership of their communication processes. For an example of the process, see the report on female genital cutting by UNICEF’s Neil Ford, in Mazi #2.

We invite you to share with Mazi readers your stories of how dialogue has helped communities come together to find solutions to their development challenges.

As David Bohm writes in On Dialogue, dialogue “is something more of a common participation, in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins.”

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