Summary of "Dialogic Listening: Sculpting Mutual Meanings"

Summary of

Dialogic Listening: Sculpting Mutual Meanings

By John Stewart and Milt Thomas

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Stewart, John, and Milt Thomas. "Dialogic Listening: Sculpting Mutual Meanings," in Bridges Not Walls, ed. John Stewart, 6th edition, (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1995), pp. 184-201.

Active or Empathic Listening

Active or empathic listening stresses putting one's self in another's place. The goal is to effectively understand and accurately interpret another's meanings. The authors identify three problems with this sort of approach.

First, we cannot actually get inside another's mind or occupy their perspective. Nor can we actually set aside our own perspective. Second, paraphrasing under this approach can become a mere repeating back of the other's words, which tends to frustrate the other person. Third, these approaches focus each participant's attention on the other's internal psychological state, rather than focusing on the joint process and interaction of communication.

Dialogic Listening

The authors contrast dialogic listening to active or empathic approaches. The dialogic approach has four distinctive characteristics. First, it emphasizes conversation as a shared activity. Usually people focus their attention on their own views in conversation. Active listening overcompensates for this tendency by overemphasizing the need to focus attention on the other's views. In contrast, in dialogic listening the focus is on "our" views and the emerging product of the conversation.

Second, dialogic listening stresses an open-ended, playful attitude toward conversation. The authors note that modern Western culture values "hard" thinking which produces certainty, closure, and control. Speculative, metaphoric, ambiguous thinking is generally devalued. Dialogic listening seeks to recover and tap into the productive creativity of this "softer" style of thinking. In contrast to the "hard" style of most conversations, the "soft" style of dialogic listening requires modesty, humility, trust, and a robust recognition of the other party as a choice-maker.

Third, in dialogic listening, the parties focus on what is happening between them, rather than each party focusing on what is going on within the mind of the other. Stewart and Thomas say, "instead of trying to infer internal 'psychic' states from the talk, when you are listening dialogically you join with the other person in the process of co-creating meaning between you."[p. 192]

Finally, dialogic listening focuses on the present, rather than primarily on future goals or on past events. Dialogic listening requires that one be fully present to the process and one's conversation partner. This attitude of being-in-the-present helps each party to unify his or her actions, intentions, and speech. It can also reduce power differences.


The most important element in applying dialogic listening is the participant's attitude. The dialogic listener must stay focused on staying present, and on the open-ended process they are jointly creating. Dialogic listening occurs when these attitudes are coupled with the following techniques:

  • 1. Dialogic listeners should encourage each other to say more, to further explore and explicate their views and questions. The authors find that requests to "say more" seldom produce mere reputation, and generally produces greater clarity and detail.
  • 2. Dialogic listeners should also use, extend, and share metaphors. Such use of metaphors is typical of the softer style of thinking, which this approach seeks to foster. Exploring metaphors can help to reveal new perspectives on an issue or situation.
  • 3. Dialogic listening also makes use of paraphrasing. The authors recommend asking one's conversation partner to paraphrase one's comments. Dialogic listeners use paraphrasing not just to repeat what the other said but also to interpret and respond. Again, the goal here is to keep the conversation open and focused on the interaction.
  • 4. The authors also encourage dialogic listeners to explore the context of each other's claims. Explore the circumstances and desires which surround ideas, feelings and opinions. Filling out the context facilitates shared understanding.

Drawbacks to Dialogic Listening

Stewart and Thomas conclude by responding to common objections to their dialogic approach. One objection is that dialogic listening is too time consuming. The authors point out that this approach can be pursued in only half-again the time that poorer communication takes. Moreover, dialogic listening can lead to more efficient communication in future interactions. Many people find that the increased quality in communication balances the additional time costs.

Dialogic listening can seem awkward and possibly manipulative to those who are unfamiliar with the approach. If you encounter this resistance, the authors suggest first that you re-examine you own motivations to make sure you aren't being manipulative or insincere. Otherwise, people can usually be put at ease with some brief explanation of your non-standard behavior.

Finally, dialogic listening is very demanding. It requires a lot of effort and attention. Sometimes people will resist these demands. One may encourage others to participate in the dialogic approach, but must know when to stop pushing.