Talk to Me

We humans love to talk, but not so much to listen. Why? Because true dialogue takes courage, and a willingness to be “dead wrong.”

Dialogue won’t fix your car, or improve your credit rating, or make your package from Amazon show up faster. What it will do, says Humanities Washington presenter Tony Osborne, is lead you to a more fulfilling life.

Dialogue isn’t just a conversation, but two people striving against the problems of the world. Art, love, fear, and belief are all fertile ground for such dissections, and when tackled through dialogue, the journey can be revelatory.

“The topics that you raise in dialogue are those that you cannot verify empirically,” says Osborne, a professor of communications and rhetoric at Gonzaga University. “These are the great existential questions, where you take one direction and it might be the right path for you, but for someone else, it might be wrong.”

Osborne has thought about dialogue a great deal, in his academic career and in previous pursuits as a journalist and a corporate consultant. His 2012 book “Greed Is Good” and Other Fables: Office Life in Popular Culture examined the way corporate existence has been portrayed from Charles Dickens through Mad Men — and he’s found that dialogue, that interpersonal search for meaning, was sadly missing from office life. Maybe it’s because dialogue, unlike business, is almost never results-oriented. But that doesn’t mean it’s not essential to living.

“You get spinoff benefits,” Osborne says. “Let’s say you don’t come to an agreement … but what you do get is a great deal of understanding for another human being. You get a great deal of compassion, you get a great deal of tolerance. You try to find out where the other person is coming from, and you give them their humanity.”


Humanities Washington: We think today of “dialogue” as two people talking, or as conversation in a film or play script, but the practice has deeper roots.

Tony Osborne: In my talk, I elevate it to a philosophical category and show that it’s much more problematic than we typically tend to think, when we bandy the word about in common parlance. It really goes back to antiquity, and dialogue is a way of discovering things about the world. It’s a way of knowing, and in my opinion, it is the highest way of understanding our place in the world. The origin of the work is in the Platonic dialogues, which was really a new way of doing philosophy. It was face-to-face, where before, you would listen to some self-proclaimed wise man pontificate the truth. But with dialogue, it’s dynamic, it’s active, you’re participating, you’re questioning. And you keep the thing going.

What are the rules that govern classical dialogue?

The parameters have to do with your intention, and it’s all about the state of mind or attitude. It’s a very difficult attitude to adopt or practice, because it really goes against your desire to be the center of attention. Dialogue is really a synonym for a type of argument, but in this type of argument, the goal is not to win—it’s to be a good partner. It’s to support the topic under investigation. The idea, the theory, is that more than one mind is much more powerful than a single individual trying to think through something. It’s very much akin to becoming a really good writer — I don’t care who you are, you could be Tolstoy or Balzac, you need an editor. You need another pair of eyes on your work. And dialogue is that: There’s a topic under investigation, and your goal is to follow the train of thought wherever it may lead. So to do that, it’s crucial that you sort of suppress this impetus, if you will, to one-up the other person. Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to be right. You have to be comfortable with the fact that you could be dead wrong, and your deepest beliefs could be off-kilter. You have to be willing to submit what may be your deepest held beliefs to critical scrutiny —and that could be painful, because our sense of identity is bound up with what we believe, what our values are. It takes a lot of courage to submit to that.

Can you think of a modern example of a constructive dialogue?

Tavis Smiley and Maya Angelou had a dialogue that went on for about 25 years: Which was the primary virtue, love or courage? One argued for love, the other argued for courage. They were coming from very different perspectives. The idea for one was that courage is first, because it takes courage to love. You have to really be courageous to be that vulnerable. The counter-argument would be, no, love is what comes first. You love first, and that itself will beget courage. The point is, neither one really won the argument, but they engaged in it with total respect. Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein did it for about 30 years. That only ended with Einstein’s death — even in their last days they were still arguing, but it was very cordial and respectful. So the thing about dialogue is it’s very much about existential questions. It’s about the great humanistic questions that every generation has wrestled with, and every generation has to work out for themselves.

You have to be willing to submit what may be your deepest held beliefs to critical scrutiny —and that could be painful, because our sense of identity is bound up with what we believe, what our values are. It takes a lot of courage to submit to that.

Do the structures of our society — work, school, politics — allow for growth via dialogue?

No, I don’t think you can have dialogue in any sort of hierarchical organization. For example, you could never have it in the Army, or the bureaucracy, because dialogue presupposes you’re dealing with an equal. You accord the other respect. And if you were, let’s say, a CEO, you would never accord to the person on the shop floor — unless you were really rare — a voice in the decision making. In many bureaucracies, you wouldn’t be allowed to talk to someone that’s two levels above you. They would say, “Go and talk to your immediate supervisor.” There was a great deal of talk about the Japanese method several decades back, where you would solicit input from several people on the floor. It sounds good, and it’s great for consultants to go around and preach that, but I don’t see a whole lot of results.

How do we promote a model of constructive dialogue, when American politics seems more egocentric and less interested in talking than ever?

I think you have to go into … I don’t want to use the word “enemy territory;” that’s total hyperbole. But let’s say I go into a community that is very much about owning guns, for whatever reason. Well, the people that I work with, they would never ever engage with someone like that. So we have something like dialogue, but we’re always talking to people that share our opinions. The tough thing is to go out and talk to those people that are diametrically opposed to what you believe. Instead of calling someone a racist, why don’t you go out and talk to someone about their life? We never do that, because we label people evil. If I were a white supremacist, in order to engage in what we call dialogue, I would have to go into the black community. If you really want to practice dialogue, instead of calling people names, sit down and talk with them. They tell you about their life, you tell them about yours, but you don’t get into some shouting match.

Tony Osborne is presenting his free Humanities Washington talk “The High Road: Fighting Selfishness through Dialogue” around the state. Find out where he’s appearing next.

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