This isn’t about writing dialogue in fiction, although it’s related in a way. In fiction, an author has to sustain conflict. In real life, we have to resolve it. Keeping the drama up can be engaging for readers, but it can be destructive when people actually need to hear each other. Contrived and exaggerated conflict is the meat of reality TV, but that’s not reality. And we’re not on TV.
My college, like many across the country, has a Dialogue Club. Students are trained to facilitate conversations on difficult topics. These conversations give students a method for expressing their experiences, opinions and feelings without attacking, blaming or accusing. The participants learn to listen without arguing back. The purpose is not to persuade anyone, but simply to understand each other.
I had already planned a Dialogue Club activity in my freshman seminar this week, and the timing was right. We talked about the topics my students had chosen in advance: Black Lives Matter, and athletes who kneel during the national anthem. And then, once we had practiced our skills in civil discourse, I asked if they would be willing to share their thoughts on the election in the same way. They did. It was amazing. My class found this dialogue process valuable enough that they want to do it every week. This is so promising, I’ve volunteered to part of an upcoming campus-wide dialogue about the election results.
The origin of dialogue clubs, to my knowledge, is with a group of women in Massachusetts who had pro-life and pro-choice views and were tired of the anger and even violence that had arisen in disagreements about abortion rights. Their purpose was to hear each other, and they found that there were not just two sides. If there were ten people in the room, there might be ten sides to the issue. Venting to our like-minded friends is a relief, of course, and we all need to do that. But then, we need to move out of our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Reducing our stress often begins with raising it—by doing what makes us uncomfortable. Getting involved in anything controversial (in a role other than audience) can make most people uncomfortable, unless they are the type that thrives on conflict. The rest of us need to be as engaged, or even more so, than the people who enjoy being angry.
Dialogue clubs have been used not only on college campuses. They have been effective working through national conflicts, in places like Rwanda. Talk doesn’t replace action, of course. What it does is do is give people the courage to become part of the public conversation, the first step toward peaceful, constructive action.