The world needs dialogue! – But why can dialogue make us angry?

Dialogue is mentioned in the news every other day if not more. In this world full of conflicts, dialogue has become the buzz word to use as a solution to conflicts between people and nations. Yet, it may not be clear what ‘dialogue’ means; is it something more than conversation between people? For the past five years, the Language Centre has offered a course on Dialogue: Constructive Talk at Work as an optional two-credit course for all degree students. Because the course is an English course where the idea is to practice dialogue through English as a lingua franca in an intercultural communication context, four extra places are offered for international students on top of the normal group size. The arrangement has worked well and students have welcomed the course as “a different and refreshing course among the other university courses” (student feedback through Webropol).

In this course, the approach is based on David Bohm’s philosophy of dialogue, which has been applied and developed successfully in working life contexts by Ellinor and Gerard, 1998, Isaacs, 1999, Schein, 1993 and Senge, 1994 among others. Although dialogue is being researched in applied linguistics and language education (e.g. Karimi-Aghdam, Dufva, & Lähteenmäki, 2016; Matusov, & Miyazaki, 2014), the idea of a language course practicing dialogue for the purposes of working life lingua franca communities seems to be something very new. This may be why students are often surprised at how the course is structured and especially at how much they are expected to take on responsibility themselves, including self-reflection in the light of the course goals. The overall reaction is positive, but some feel frustrated by the unexpected course approach and especially the requirement of not missing any sessions.   It may be difficult to voice these feelings in the dialogue circle and sometimes the anonymous Webropol feedback tool provides the outlet. If the course approach does not fit a student’s worldview, it may not be possible to achieve the course goals. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that the goals are achieved later, after the course. The topics may be disturbing but if not shut out, they may start opening new paths in thinking about thinking together.

At the other end of the feedback spectrum, students claim that the course should be mandatory for all students and even for all human beings! Such seemingly obvious skills as asking questions, becoming aware of one’s judgements, checking assumptions as well as the basic skills of listening and voicing often unfold in a new light through the focus, exercises and practice of these dialogue skills when working with the group.

The dialogue course is also a learning space for myself as a teacher; I sit in the dialogue circle fully aware of my incompleteness. Bohmian dialogue emphasises equality – one more problematic aspect of dialogue for those who feel safe with authority. Even in a friendly equal atmosphere, it is not easy to voice disagreement. Indeed, I have come across many people who openly say that they do not believe in dialogue. Could it be that if we believed in the power of education and especially in its power to enhance the good in people through dialogue (cf. Värri, 2004), we could start breaking the bubbles that people and, by extension, societies seem to live in – in any language? If we could start practicing dialogue skills throughout the educational path in all languages, could we learn to voice our opinions, disagreement and difficult emotions more openly in meetings and other interactive professional and academic contexts? Would we be able to face each other in a trustful manner? Would workplaces become happier places, if we believed in dialogue? Would back-stabbing stop? Could we end wars?

The dialogue course may be too idealistic for many, but my question is why it should be so. If dialogic language and communication skills were part of all academic degrees, wouldn’t the students of the future Tampere University be better equipped to understand different worldviews? A dialogical mind-set might prove valuable when “working to solve society’s major challenges and create new opportunities by linking pioneering research and innovation, promoting interdisciplinary education and life-long partnerships”.  Wouldn’t it be good to learn to let go of some of the frustration and anger and become more open to the world before starting to solve wicked problems and changing the world? Dialogic language and communication skills could be understood as part of Academic Bildung, as the concept of tieteellinen sivistys is sometimes translated in English (‘academic education’ not quite capturing the European Bildung idea.)  (cf. Solberg, & Hansen, 2015). Now that sivistys (Bildung) is gaining more prominence in Finland through such new openings as Sivistyakatemia (the Bildung Academy), it is a good time to start developing wisdom (cf. the vision for higher education and research 2030) through dialogue and the art of thinking together. First, we just need to become aware of our humanity in being in dialogue. The problems that we create as human beings we should perhaps be able to solve if only we had the willingness to work for finding a common language. Working life is changing, multidisciplinary and multilingual workplaces with various lingua francas are here to stay – the world needs dialogue!

Mirja Hämäläinen

Lecturer in English



Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. Edited by L. Nichol. London: Routledge.

Ellinor, L., & Gerard, G. (1998). Dialogue: Rediscover the transforming power of conversation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Isaacs, W. (1999a). Dialogue and the art of thinking together (First ed.). New York: Currency.

Karimi-Aghdam, S., Dufva, H., & Lähteenmäki, M. (2016). Dancing with alternative lyrics:
integrating sociocultural, dialogical, distributed and dynamical conceptualizations of language and its development for L2 studies. AFinLAn vuosikirja, 163-183.

Matusov, E., & Miyazaki, K. (2014). Dialogue on dialogic pedagogy. Dialogic Pedagogy2.

Schein, E. H. (1993). On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning. Organizational Dynamics, 22(2), 51.

Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (Paperback ed.). New York: Currency Doubleday

Solberg, M., & Hansen, F. T. (2015). On Academic Bildung in higher education: A Scandinavian approach. In Academic bildung in net-based higher education (pp. 40-66). Routledge.

Värri, V. M. (2004). Hyvä kasvatus—kasvatus hyvään: Dialogisen kasvatuksen filosofinen tarkastelu erityisesti vanhemmuuden näkökulmasta. Tampere University Press.



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