The Need for Dialogue: Perspectives from Kripalu's CEO

Photo by Thais Aquino

I grew up in the Republic of Ireland, not in the middle of the conflict in the North of the country, but not immune to it. As someone who feels beyond his own personal experience, I could taste it: the war, the suffering, the lack of peace in people’s minds, in their hearts, in their actions, and the lack of peace in the land. It was like she ached below my feet. There was a grip of fear that acted like a parasite on the life force of a people. 

At some point in the middle of it all, when the conflict was real and present, some people followed a call, an invitation to dialogue. They decided that what they could do was listen, they may not understand, but that the possibility of understanding would only come from listening. The possibility of understanding something new in their own hearts, minds, and bodies. 

That possibility of new understanding is what cracks the walls of division that we place in front of each other and within ourselves. In the North, people came together to listen, slowly, cautiously at first. This must have felt so vulnerable, so exposed, with the risk of their community exiling and even killing them. Yet they listened to the wiser part that was calling them towards a great act of humility, an act that would build over time and eventually create a softening in enough of the minds and hearts of those at war. This happened over 25 years, with many times when people became so disconnected again that the talking stopped. They stayed the course, despite a nearly 900-year history, willing to come back together, holding a vision that something else was possible, without even knowing what the form of that was.

We are living in a deeply divided time, a deeply disconnected time, that feels too familiar to my bones. Pockets of the world are experiencing this more than others, maybe no place more so than the United States right now, or so it feels to me. 

The divisions we are seeing and feeding are coming from a disconnection. We as a society, and as individuals are disconnected from our bodies, from our inner voice of wisdom, we are disconnected from true relationship within community, from the earth that feeds us. We are disconnected from what all our ancient ancestors knew and celebrated. We are disconnected from our hearts. I am not immune to this disconnection, it flows through us all, we are swimming in the waters of culture that is encouraging deeper disconnection. This is leading us down a dangerous path right now, a path that could become deeply chaotic and catastrophic. This is playing out right now in the 30+ wars that are happening on this earth as you read these words. It is happening all over social media, it is happening around the family dinner table. The tentacles of division are now almost everywhere. 

This disconnection is both a symptom of the culture we live in, a culture that lives internally in our minds, how we speak to ourselves when we are alone, how we treat our bodies, how we shame and criticize ourselves. It equally lives externally in the systems and laws that do not support the well-being of all.

What are we to do? How do you listen when you don’t know the whole history of any moment? How do you listen when even the act of listening to someone outside your echo chamber can draw deep judgment from others, a betrayal. Yet this earth is crying out for us to listen. 

Since I first found his work, I have been drawn back to Bill Isaacs, author and leader in the study of dialogue, and his invitation. 

“Dialogue, as I define it here, is about a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together. It is not something you do to another person. It is something you do with people. Indeed, a large part of learning this has to do with learning to shift your attitudes about relationships with others, so that we gradually give up the effort to make them understand us and come to a greater understanding of ourselves and each other.” — Bill Isaacs

It is the principles and tools of dialogue that brought about a transformation in my beautiful country. A commitment to practice four simple yet profoundly powerful tools: 

  • LISTENING—We must listen not only to others but to ourselves, dropping our assumptions, resistance, and reactions. 
  • RESPECTING—We must allow rather than try to change people with a different viewpoint. 
  • SUSPENDING—We must suspend our opinions, step back, change direction, and see with new eyes. 
  • VOICING—We must speak our own voice. Find our own authority, giving up the need to dominate. 

This is not an easy invitation, it is an invitation to go against much of what we have learned, much of how society expects us to behave. We will explore each practice in upcoming articles, hearing about how we can live more deeply into the art of dialogue, and through that cultivate more connection, more understanding, new meaning, and the possibility of peace. 

Robert Mulhall is the CEO of Kripalu. He is passionate about service and deeply curious about how people can facilitate sustainable transformation to enable more peace, justice, and freedom in our world.

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