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What Does a Typical Dialogue Look Like?

Dialogues are as diverse as the communities which engage in them.? Everything varies from dialogue to dialogue:? the number of participants, the purpose of the dialogue, the topics which are discussed, the characteristics (ethnicity, age, gender, etc.) of its members, the length of each meeting, the number of sessions?…everything.? But there are some guidelines that most dialogue groups adhere to, or at least consider.?

These guidelines are what makes a group activity a dialogue, and what makes a dialogue so powerful:

A. Ground Rules
B. Discussion

C. The Numbers

D. Commitment

Ground Rules

Dialogue emphasizes listening, honesty and open-mindedness.? In order to keep a dialogue from becoming an adversarial debate or non-personal discussion, ground rules must be established and agreed upon by the group.? Generally, a list of ground rules are given to the group, with the understanding that they may omit or add any rules as they see fit.? Dialogue groups tend to keep basic ground rules such as those suggested below, and many groups add several of their own.? It is important to review the ground rules at the beginning of each dialogue, and for the facilitator to intervene when ground rules are broken to the detriment of the group.? Some common ground rules (from Public Conversations Project and the Study Circles Resource Center) are:

?• Use ?‘I?’ statements instead of ?‘we,?’ ?‘you?’ or ?‘they?’ statements.? Express concerns in a manner that invites others to hear, not in a manner that invites defensiveness.

?• Listen actively.? Try not to let your mind wander or think about what you?’re going to say while others are speaking.? Avoid interrupting.

?• Share air time.? Try not to dominate the conversation.

?• Use considerate language.? Avoid using labels whenever possible.

?• Feel free to pass if you are not ready or willing to speak.? Try not to pressure others to speak.

?• Confront misperceptions and mistaken ideas without accusing others of being racist, white supremacist, etc.? Instead, ask open-ended questions that gather more information without judging (i.e. What is it that caused you to feel that way?).

?• When there is a disagreement, keep talking.? Explore the disagreement and search for areas of agreement (common ground).

?• Feel free to express your feelings when you have been offended or hurt.

?• Inquire rather than assume you know.? Ask clarifying questions when you are inclined to make assumptions; ask genuine questions when you are inclined to persuade or argue.

?• Be open to changing your mind.? This will help you really listen to others?’ views.

?• Don?’t waste time arguing about points of fact.

?• Respect confidentiality.? If you talk about your dialogue experience to people outside of the group, refrain from using people?’s names or sharing their personal experiences.

?• Make a good effort to attend all of the dialogue sessions.


Although some types of dialogue allow the discussion to go wherever the participants take it, dialogues which have a specific focus and distinct purpose (and a limited time frame) need a certain amount of structure in order to succeed.? Dialogue proponents recommend various structures for dialogues on race, but many agree that a dialogue has several basic stages, beginning with individual experiences, moving on to community issues, continuing with discussion about the possibilities for community change, and often culminating with the planning of individual or group action.

Some typical questions to get people talking about? their own racial and cultural identity are:

?• Did you grow up mostly around people who were similar to you racially and culturally?

?• What are some of your earliest memories of coming in contact with people who were different from you racially or culturally?

?• Relate a personal story or give an example to illustrate how your background or experiences have contributed to your attitudes about race relations.

?• What is your racial, ethnic or cultural background?

?• Have you experienced racism personally?? Have you seen it in practice?? How has it affected you or people you know?

?• In what ways do your attitudes toward people of other racial or ethnic groups differ from those of your parents and grandparents?

To spur conversation about community issues, the facilitator might pose one or more of these questions:

?• How would you describe the overall state of race relations in the community in which you live or work?

?• Do you find it easier or harder for you to make friends of other races than it was a few years ago?? Why?

?• What do you think some of the underlying conditions are which affect race relations in your community?? In other words, what are some of the causes of racism and interracial conflict in your community?

To encourage the group to share a range of viewpoints on how racism might be addressed, the facilitator could ask the group to brainstorm on questions such as:

?• The struggle to improve race relations has a long history in this country.? How has change come about??

?• What strategies and actions were most helpful in the past?? What kinds of efforts are needed today?? Why?

?• What things need to be done locally before racism is eradicated and race relations are improved?

?• What organizations are already working on this issue in the community, and what are they doing?? How can these organizations?’ efforts be improved?

?• What resources or tools which exist in the community could be better utilized to dismantle racism and improve race relations and equality?

If the group is interested in utilizing what they?’ve learned from the dialogue process by taking action, either individually or collectively, some questions to ask are:

?• What seemed to be the major themes in the previous dialogues?? Were there a number of shared concerns?

?• What are some concrete steps you can take?—by yourself or with others?—to address these concerns?

?• What are some of the obstacles you can foresee for these efforts?? How can you overcome these barriers?

Again, every dialogue is different, but these questions should give you a better idea of what actually happens during an intergroup dialogue on race.? Read the section called A Sample Dialogue for AmeriCorps Programs to get a better idea of what a dialogue tailored specifically for your program might look like.

The Numbers

Ideally, dialogue groups consist of between ten and fifteen people.? If a group is smaller, it is difficult for the organizers to get a good diversity of perspectives and experiences.? If a group is larger, participants may never feel that they have developed a strong, cohesive group through dialogue.? If you need to break up your larger group in order to meet this specification, you may choose to eventually get the large group together to discuss their experiences, to select and break up into committees based on particular interests, or to do any number of activities that will bring the group back together to focus on racism and race relations.

Dialogue sessions tend to be two hours long, with one break.? Dialogue is very participatory, but it is not physically active.? If you think two hours of dialogue would be very challenging to your group, you may want to consider having 90-minute dialogue sessions.? Refrain from shortening dialogue sessions further in order to alternate them with more physically active activities, for the benefits of dialogue would most likely be lost.

Typically, a dialogue group will meet between four to six times, usually once a week.? Some dialogue groups decide to keep meeting indefinitely on, say, a monthly basis.? Many others shift their focus from talk to community action during the third or fourth session.? Since every group is different, it is difficult to prescribe a set number of meetings.? If you have some freedom with your training schedule, you may want to decide after the second or third session whether or not the group needs to continue the dialogue.? Also, no matter how many sessions are held, it is quite possible that your dialogue group, or a portion of the group, will want to continue the dialogue on their own time.


It is very important that each dialogue group have the same participants during each session.? Although a few participants may miss a session, there should be no new participants, guest participants or even guest observers after the first session.? If someone misses the first session, they should join a group only with the group?’s permission, along with a synopsis of what happened during the session that was missed and an explanation of the ground rules.

In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, members of the group need to become comfortable enough within the group to take risks.? Any group of people can talk about race and racism, but people need to feel safe enough to talk about these topics from their own perspectives and experiences.? Talking about these issues at this depth?—and listening to others who are also taking the risk to speak honestly about these issues?—is where the power lies in dialogue.? It is this depth that induces personal transformation and the collective desire for action within dialogue groups.

For this reason, it is important for dialogue participants to be asked to commit to a specific number of dialogue sessions.? Every participant should be aware before the first dialogue session that they are expected to commit to three sessions, for example, and that the group will decide whether or not it wants to continue beyond those three.? The purpose of the dialogue and the fact that it takes more than one dialogue session to make the process worthwhile should be clear to the participants before they begin.

The Dialogue to Action Initiative and www.Thataway.org are ?2001 by Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke. ?
Last updated Thursday, December 27, 2001 12:54 AM ?
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