Dialogue and Mom's Hash

We have been teaching groups the formal process of dialogue, as develophashsed by Bill Isaacs, since 1997.  Sometimes the experience has been very positive; at other times the group has not felt their efforts yielded anything substantively different from their ordinary high-quality conversations. And always dialogue seems to produce a certain amount of anxiety in the participants: “Are we doing it right” “Is this it?”

In a way, this anxiety is not inappropriate. As we indicated in our earlier article on the topic, dialogue IS different from our other conversations-even the good ones-and you can’t get to dialogue just by bringing your usual self and skills. On the other hand, performance anxiety doesn’t predispose us to the calm focus and deep curiosity that make true dialogue possible. So we’ve been thinking about how to teach dialogue without so much emphasis on the “rules,” the right way to do it.

And then I woke up recently, thinking of my mom’s hash-that heart-warming, belly-filling, mouth-watering staple of my childhood. So I got up and looked in Mom’s kitchen bible, The Joy of Cooking, and discovered that hash isn’t just one thing, but a whole class of things: “a dish made of chopped meat.” “Hmmmm,” I thought, “there must be a lot of ways of making hash. Italians probably make it with basil and oregano; Mexicans with cilantro and cumin; Indians with curry.

We’re coming to think that dialogue is like hash. There are lots of recipes that will work to create dialogue. What’s most helpful is to be clear about what makes dialogue dialogue: what is the essence of this form of conversation. And then, though we will have our own favorite recipe, participants can be clear about the heart of dialogue, and comfortable with developing their own recipes.

And so in this article we want to do two things:

  • identify those things that we see as essential characteristics of the unique form of conversation known as dialogue, and
  • share some of the ingredients that we try to build into our own ventures into dialogue, in the hope that you will find some that are helpful to you, and feel free to let the others go as you create your own recipe.

Essential Characteristics of Dialogue

  1. We see four characteristics present in all of our experiences of dialogue. We have come to see these as indicators that a group has arrived, through whatever means, at the quality of conversation that is being called “dialogue.”
  2. The purpose of a conversation will determine whether or not dialogue is appropriate. Dialogue is not for answering a straightforward question, or determining a course of action (though it may pave the way for determining a course of action at a later time.) When what is desired is an opportunity to explore a complex question, creating together a fuller picture than any individual can see alone, dialogue is a good choice of process.
  3. The frame of the conversation is large enough to have space for differences, for both/ands, for polarities and for paradox. The differences are actively probed and explored, but without an argumentative or competitive spirit.
  4. This non-combative exploration of differences is made possible largely because of the third characteristic: a deep belief that no one has the answer or sees the whole picture, but that each has a piece of the truth and all will be enriched by understanding what the others know.

The first three characteristics make possible the fourth: dialogue is marked by frequent glimmers of a larger truth than any participant has grasped before, and even occasional “ahas” that happen not just for individuals, but for the group as a whole.

As we have tried to sort out what structures and mindsets would make it most possible for participants to find their way to this kind of conversation, we have come to focus on three sources: Parker Palmer, an educator who writes from the perspective of the Quaker tradition; Pema Chodron, who teaches from the perspective of the Buddhist tradition; and Bill Isaacs, who writes from an organizational perspective informed by physicists and philosophers. These sources represent our recipe for dialogue, but we want to emphasize that many other recipes are possible, as long as they result in the four essential characteristics identified above.

Parker Palmer:
In his 1993 book, To Know as we are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Palmer writes of the three characteristics essential to creating a space for learning: Openness, Boundaries, and Hospitality. Because dialogue is, at its heart, a process for deep learning, Palmer’s suggestions resonate with our experiences of dialogue.

To create openness means “to remove the impediments to learning that we find … within us, to set aside the barriers behind which we hide so that truth cannot seek us out. We not only ‘find’ these obstacles around and within us; we often create them ourselves to evade the challenge of truth and transformation…. If we are to open space for knowing, we must be alert to our fear of not knowing and to our fearful tendency to fill the learning space. First, we must see that not knowing is simply the first step toward truth…. Second, we must remember that we not only seek truth but truth seeks us as well. When we become obsessed with our own seeking, we fill the space with methods and hypotheses and reports that may be mere diversions. But when we understand that truth is constantly seeking us, we have reason to open a space in which truth might seek us out.

Boundarieshelp us to abide in the open space that we have created. We frequently think of boundaries as things that keep other people, things or events out of our space, but Parker Palmer uses the word to remind us of our inclination to flee from pain, uncertainty and not-knowing. Faced with the open space necessary for dialogue, we must notice and challenge our desire to flee-into memories, tangential thoughts, comparisons: anything that protects us from the anxiety of unknowing. As a meditator acknowledges and moves beyond the chattering of “monkey mind” by quietly saying “thinking” and then emptying the mind again, so the person engaged in dialogue notes each time she escapes beyond the boundaries of the conversation, and gently calls herself back to the uncertain but fertile open space.

In the open space we have created, feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and discomfort with not-knowing easily arise. The antidote to these feelings, Parker Palmer suggests, is to bring an attitude of hospitality. By hospitality, he means a sense of welcome that makes it possible for each participant to enter the space certain that her ideas-however tentative-are valued, her struggles are a source of richness to the group. Hospitality does not imply a lack of rigor or a culture of unquestioning agreement with all ideas, but rather a wholehearted invitation to each idea and to all explorations-including critiques-of those ideas.

Pema Chodron

The particular practice for which Pema Chodron is best known is tonglen, the practice of intentionally breathing in those things we find painful and want to resist, and breathing out those things that bring us pleasure and that we want to hold on to. (See our brief article on the practice of tonglen for a fuller explanation.) Three words that she uses frequently to describe the self-preparation for this practice are softness, spaciousnessand welcome. Unlike Parker Palmer’s three words, these do not refer to three different qualities, but are just different ways of imaging the same experience: that of opening to receive what we would like to keep at a distance, or holding lightly what we would like to keep forever.

In dialogue, where there is an assumption that differences are important manifestations of a reality more complex than any individual is able to perceive alone, and therefore an intent to explore the unique perspectives of each participant, this quality of softness, spaciousness or welcome is an important one to cultivate. It enables us to hold our own understandings lightly, offering them to the group without demanding that they remain unchanged. And it enables us to make space within ourselves to receive the perspectives of others, without the hard shell of resistance that so frequently causes us to reject a new or different idea without truly exploring it.

Bill Isaacs

Bill Isaacs’ writing on dialogue is-we think-the most comprehensive that can be found. It includes the conceptual grounding for the practice (primarily from the physicist David Bohm), connections to philosophers and others whose thinking relates to dialogue, a description of the stages often experienced in a dialogue, and suggestions for attitudes and skills that enable one to be a contributing participant.

We add three ingredients drawn from Isaacs to our recipe for successful dialogue. All three are simple, but surprisingly challenging.

First, the pace of the conversation is quite slow. Accustomed as we are to beginning our response just as or justbefore the previous speaker has finished (which means that we decide what we want to say long before that person has finished), we find the measured pace of dialogue a real challenge. Isaacs’assumption is that we need to listen to all of the previous idea before we respond, letting that idea in its fullness find its way into the soft and receptive space we have created in ourselves. Only then do we know whether we really have something to say in response. Isaacs encourages us to “let the sound [of the previous speaker’s words] cascade”, in the same way that we can let the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl resonate, hearing the different qualities of its sound as it fades slowly into silence. The richness of another’s thinking is often revealed in the attentive silence that follows the words, much more than in the quick hunch that arises mid-sentence or mid-paragraph in the mind of the listener.

Second, it is important for each participant to set aside our usual mindsets of evaluation and critique, and bring first an attitude of curiosity. It is curiosity that endows the silence in dialogue with the potential for new insights or understandings of complex truths. Without curiosity, the silence simply becomes an opportunity for the listener to gather more incisive critiques, better-developed arguments. Some of the questions we ask ourselves in the silence…

1. (if we find ourselves immediately disagreeing) “How might this be making sense to the speaker? How is my own mental model being challenged by what the speaker is saying?” (This question reminds us that while what we think always feels like truth to us, it is in fact only a mental model: a set of images, stories and assumptions that we have woven together to help us make sense of a complex reality.)

2. “Am I feeling any mental/emotional discomfort or unrest? If so, what is evoking that reaction in me?”

3. “Am I feeling a sense of urgency to respond to the speaker? What, in me, is the source of that urgency? Why is it hard for me to let these ideas go ‘uncorrected’?”

4. “How often have I heard myself speak in the last 15-20 minutes? How am I doing at balancing the need to make my reflections available to the group with the need to allow space for others to share their reflections? If I am over-contributing, what is the source of my need to speak? If I am under-contributing, what is the source of my reluctance?”

Third, we need to bring our thinking and feeling to dialogue. What is critical is that these are present tense concepts, as opposed to what Isaacs calls “thoughting” and “felting.” Much of what we bring to our usual conversations is thoughting: ideas we developed earlier and may have used many times. You can recognize this in yourself when you are in conversation and, as the other person speaks, you find yourself noting, “I have a response to that.” Thoughting allows a conversation to move very quickly, and each person may get new insights from the thoughts “downloaded” by the other, but nothing is being created in the exchange. In dialogue, the slow pace, curiosity about what the other is saying, and a commitment to wait past our thoughts to see if new thinking will emerge allows for the creation of new understandings.

Conversations with strong emotional content (for example, those that challenge our attitudes or strongly-held beliefs) often produce “felting” as well as thoughting. In this case, emotions arise in the conversation that reflect a habitual response to the topic rather than an actual response to the events of the moment. Again, the slow pace and a curiosity about what we find happening within ourselves can make it possible to move past the habitual response, to a more authentic reflection of our emotions and the truths toward which they may point us.


These are the ingredients we are currently using in our recipe for dialogue. Is it necessary for you to attend closely to all of them? Absolutely not! Pick two or three that resonate strongly for you, and use them as your starting point. If you are pleased with the quality of conversation they make possible, add another one or two. They have the potential to improve any reflective conversation, and if you find the conversation has the qualities described on p. 3 (“Essential Characteristics of Dialogue”), you’ll know that you have found your way to dialogue.

Questions for Reflection and Conversation

1. Think of a very positive conversation you have had on a complex and potentially divisive topic. Do any of the Essential Characteristics of Dialogue describe that conversation? Thinking of yourself in that conversation, can you see that you were using any of the ingredients we’ve described here?

2. Think of a conversation you hoped would be like this, but was not. Do you think that the group agreeing on any of the Essential Characteristics as “ground rules” for the conversation, or you as an individual using any of the ingredients we’ve described, could have improved the quality of the conversation?

3. Think ahead to a potentially challenging conversation that you will have. How might you as an individual prepare for that conversation? How might you invite the group to engage in the conversation in a dialogical way?


According to Geraldine Alvarez

You wíll need to have on hand some leftover pot roast and gravy. (Roast pork-maybe even turkey-would work fine, too.)

Dice about 3 C. meat
Dice 2-3 medium unpeeled red potatoes
Chop 2-3 onions

In a heavy skillet, saute onions in olive oil spray or a small amount of olive oil (actually, Geraldine used to use bacon grease-no wonder it tasted so good!)

Add meat and potatoes and 1-2 C. water. Cover and simmer 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are cooked. Stir in gravy to create a thicker sauce, and heat. Add salt and pepper, as needed.

© Jean Alvarez (jeanalvarez44107@gmail.com)
Permission to copy this article is granted by the author but must include copyright information.

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