A Monologue about Dialogue
Dr. Abdelkader Fustok

Many incorrectly understand the word "dialogue" to mean a conversation between individuals. Dialogue, as a word, comes from the two Greek roots: "dia" which means "through," and logos which means "word" or "meaning." It means words and meanings are flowing through unimpeded among the group having the dialogue.

Dialogue, then, is far removed from discussion and debate. Discussion, from an etymological point of view, means to break things apart. Debate means to beat things up. Discussion may have its value but, often time it is like a game, the object of which is to win the point. This is a win-lose game, whereas dialogue is a win-win deal.

True dialogue is a creative force. It is the only way to create harmony and generate the trust and understanding that will transform a group of individuals into an organization. Its object is to generate new relationships. It is the mechanism that can make two plus two equal more than four. No one is an island. Anything and everything is part of a whole. From the microcosm to the macrocosm, relationship is what give meaning to the parts. I read somewhere, that "any consideration other than the universe is arbitrary."

Furthermore, these individuals bring with them their basic assumptions, their own mental individual maps, about the meaning of life, how the world operates, what "should" or "should not" be, self-interest, and so forth. Our basic assumptions are developed from our childhood, our family, teachers, books we read and so on. We hold them so deeply that we become identified with them, and when these assumptions are challenged we defend them with great emotion. Some would die or kill for them. Quite often we do this unconsciously. Like computer programs they take over against the best of intentions, they produce their own intentions.

This is what happens with any group trying to work together. And the most likely outcome is more fragmentation and ineluctable splintering of the group. This fragmentation is reinforced by a worldview from the sixteenth century which saw the universe as a great machine. The scientific discoveries of the twentieth century (the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics) showed that this is not so.

The above was meant to emphasize the overwhelming difficulties facing any sincere attempt at organized work. The main culprit is our own thought process itself. Whenever we intend to do something, we often unconsciously feel a resistance trying to prevent us from doing it. That is obviously a big waste of energy, and it is very destructive. We are constantly producing situations and things we do not intend and then say "look, we’ve got a problem." We don’t realize that it is our deeper, hidden intentions which produced it, and, consequently, we keep on perpetuating it.

  Cultures play a big role in facilitating or impeding the process of dialogue. To simplify, let us define "culture" as a set of "shared meanings." It encompasses, among many others:  values, principles, codes of conduct, the total production of human creativity in a certain time and geographic place. It is the invisible medium that we breathe. Without the culture, a group would fall apart. It is a kind of cement that holds a people together. It envelops and contains everything. It is as if our entire past, good and bad, were frozen in the present moment. We only become aware of its existence when we suddenly move to a different culture. So vividly, to this day, do I recall my total shock and astonishment when, back in the winter of 1961, on my first trip to France, as I stood on the deck of the ship which had anchored in Marseilles, I saw a middle aged woman sweeping the pier. I knew then that I was in a different place, as this would not be possible or acceptable in my culture.

Take, as an example, a car that has been smashed into random pieces. The pieces are quite different from the parts that went into the making of the car, which had an integral relationship to one another, resulting in a functional whole. The smashed fragments, on the other hand, have no essential relationship. They cannot be but useless pieces.

Relationship is what creates anything and everything. Sub-atomic particles enter into a relationship and form atoms. Atoms combine to form all kinds of substances including molecules. Molecules unite, and a human results. A man and a woman, through marriage, form a relationship resulting in a family, the primordial unit of any society. We can affirm, without hesitation, that relationships create life itself. When humans resist this natural tendency, they go against the basic reason for their existence. The Holy Qur’an states: "O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another."

If individuals were to commit to participate in dialogue and sustain it over a period of time, they would have a coherent movement of thought, not only at the conscious level that we all recognize, but more importantly at the tacit level, the unspoken level which cannot be described. If we think together in a coherent way, it would have tremendous power.

Dialogue does not require people to agree with each other. It encourages people to participate in a pool of shared meaning that leads to aligned action. It is a non-judgmental curiosity, its primary activity being to see things as freshly and as clearly as possible. Otherwise our own thought process is, by nature, a fragmentary one.

Unfortunately, when we observe closely individuals in a group trying to work together for a common purpose, more often than not, the first thing we notice is that they are not able to listen to each other. We are more likely to witness a chorus of monologues.

In any group, some individuals become dominant. They talk easily, have experience in conducting meetings, and end up running the show. Others keep quiet, perhaps because they are afraid of making fools of themselves; but they feel somewhat resentful of those who are dominant. Some act out roles, and others find that very irritating. They either break apart or they enter into a transient pseudo-dialogue, where the "undiscussables" are ignored, forced temporarily beneath the surface, blocking any real communication.

So culture is a set of "shared meanings." The word "meaning" has three senses:  It is like a "sign" that points to something. Another is "value." And there is "purpose" or "intention." If I say "something means a lot to me" I mean it has a high value. If I say "I mean to do it" that is the same as to say "It is my purpose, my intention." These are related words. Something with great significance will generate an acute sense of value. The value could become the energy that infuses one and makes one feel that it is worth doing or worthwhile.

What makes matters even more complicated is the fact that within a culture there are many subcultures in which things may mean something very different, ethnic subcultures, religious and economic subcultures. These subcultures, invariably, lead to divisions and impede true dialogue unless they are addressed and acknowledged and find their expression in an integrated whole.

We often have an unfounded notion that in order to achieve anything we have to think alike. Nothing is further from the truth. Were we to be carbon copies of one another, the world would be dull and uninteresting. A common purpose and denominator are necessary ingredients for the success of any concerted effort. The common purpose should produce a compelling vision.

So let us not use the all too easy weapon of self-incrimination and blame. Rather, let us acknowledge the fact that organized work is an extremely arduous and difficult task for any group of people no matter who they are or where they are from. In the small circle of my own family, it is not easy to build a consensus about as trivial a matter as where to go for dinner!

Sustained, open, honest, tolerant and patient dialogue has the potential to produce a forum within which individuals are given space and time to vent years of repressed tension and frustration. Some in our community, especially the recent immigrants, have a hard time controlling their emotions when expressing their opinions concerning important matters. They talk as if they were shooting bullets. Human frailty is universal, nobody is immune to it. Each one of us is born into a dysfunctional family.

The process of dialogue may free the participants from real or illusory self-imposed limitations. These individuals may recover their self-respect, self-worth, and self-esteem. As a normal consequence, their creativity becomes unbridled and their contributions to themselves and to the community can be very meaningful (otherwise they, and we, are deprived of their potential). In time, bonding and networking among the group take hold, followed by mutual respect.

A level of trust is generated that will survive any crisis or difficulty. These newfound relationships make it possible for these individuals to tolerate things from one another that they were unable to accept before, and to approach the subject and resolve any problem. This process is a slow and lengthy one. It requires patience, dedication and determination.

This can lead to what some call a "virtuous cycle." In a virtuous cycle, the quality of relationships determines the quality of thinking. In turn, the quality of thinking determines the quality of actions, the quality of actions determines the quality of results, which, in turn, determines the quality of relationships, and so on. Like anything else, this is a dynamic cycle. All the elements of a cycle are to be tended to. One part cannot be stressed over another. If we happen to strain one of them, the whole cycle would be disrupted. If one presses the gas pedal and the brakes simultaneously, one is bound to waste energy and produce no motion.

The late British physicist David Bohm in his book On Dialogue compared dialogue to superconductivity: "In superconductivity, electrons cooled to a very low temperature act more like a coherent whole than as separate parts. They flow around obstacles without colliding with one another, creating no resistance and very high energy." In the absence of resistance, energy is not wasted and actions do not cancel each other out.

Our community, more than any other, is in dire need of dialogue. Although we lack the tradition and, perhaps, the patience for it, it is time for us to rethink our old beliefs and develop a new way of communicating with one another and bonding for our common purpose. Such are the goals of Al-Hewar Center in metropolitan Washington, D.C. and the Arab-American Community Center in Houston – organizations which have made very good inroads in building constructive dialogue within the community. The gained experiences and lessons of these organizations can be of great benefit to the entire community and can provide an excellent blueprint to those who wish to initiate similar institutions.

Dr. Fustok is a cosmetic surgeon and a founder of the Arab-American Community Center in Houston and is active in several Arab American organizations in the U.S.