The Art of Dialogue Demands a Contemplative Heart


We realize that practicing the skills of dialogue alone is not sufficient to deepen the reflection on impasse and what it is calling us to. Rather, it is dialogue within a communal contemplative context that becomes important.

The key insights of the practice of dialogue as articulated by William Isaacs in his book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, are fundamental. He teaches that the Pace of the dialogue must be quite slow so that we can hear the fullness of the idea spoken; that we need to exercise Curiosity rather than judgment; and that we need to be Thinking and Feeling so that we release ourselves from our habitual Thoughting and Felting. These fundamental skills are complemented by the environment created which invites each person to touch into their contemplative heart.

Many things contribute to creating such an environment—ritual, contemplative sitting, sharing deeply one’s experiences. Two other persons offer insights which enhance the creative space of dialogue.

Parker Palmer in his book, To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, teaches that there are three characteristics essential for creating a space for learning. They are: Openness, Boundaries, and Hospitality. He describes those words in unique ways. Palmer believes that a learning space is “to make the painful things possible, things without which no learning can occur—things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought.”

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, also addresses the importance of pain as a path for learning. In her book, When Things Fall Apart, she writes: “We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole….Yet, when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings…Someone needs to encourage us that this soft spot in us could be awakened and that to do this would change our lives….The practice of Tonglen—sending and receiving….is a practice of creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax.” Chodron invites us to become Soft; to Welcome in the other; and to create a Spaciousness.

Dialogue within a communal contemplative context is an integration of these three wisdoms. Jean Alvarez, original Design Team member, has written about this insight of the Engaging Impasse Circle experience in her article, “Dialogue and Mom’s Hash.” Click on the title to read the article in which she explains the key concepts, describing how they are understood in each of the three areas of learning.

It has become even clearer now for those engaging impasse that the art of dialogue demands a contemplative heart.

Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

© 2005-2019  Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue
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Further Reading:
Isaacs, William. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999.
Isaacs has worked extensively developing the dialogue approach especially with major corporations. Building on the insights of David Bohm, Isaacs provides us with a comprehensive explanation of dialogue and its practical guidelines. He helps all of us to learn how to talk together in honest and effective ways.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know As We Are Known. San Francisco, CA: Harper/Collins Publisher, 1983.
Palmer writes this text for educators. He envisions what education could truly be like if it was a community of truth. Much of what he shares offers a new way of listening and responding, a new way of talking with each other. He believes the soul of education is found through a cultivation of the wisdom we each possess.

Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness.San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
The subtitle, Journey Toward an Undivided Life, captures well the focus of this book. Palmer brings together four themes which he has been reflecting on for years. They are: the shape of an integral life, the meaning of community, teaching and learning for transformation, and nonviolvent social change. The principles and practices offered here are rooted in the Circles of Trust which Palmer has facilitated over the years.

Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.Boston, MA: Shambhala Classics, 1997.
Chodron teaches us how to approach suffering in a way that is not usual for Western culture. She is an American Buddhist nun and draws on that tradition to offer us a way of moving toward pain and suffering with a curiosity and friendliness that relaxes us into the depths of that situation. This is an excellent book and offers very practical advice for those searching for holistic ways of engaging the difficult situations in life.

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