Dr. Walter Schwertl

Dr. Walter Schwertl; Mediator, Specialist for Communication

Authorized Version per Dr. Walter Schwertl



Where communication is silenced

is where being human stops

Bertolt Brecht

Dr. Walter Schwertl, Frankfurt


Sketches of dialogues – on my way to Kish[1]


I resisted social temptation. Flight times are valuable for being all by yourself. Armed with a book and note pad, experienced from a lot of business traveling, I sank into this personal moment. Not knowing the Orient and equipped with poor English, I was invited to participate in the dialogue on culture on the previous coral island Kish.

What will be happening there? I was invited as a specialist on dialogues, a designer of communication, somebody who would be looking for dialogues where there are none anymore or where there are too many already. I always move within linguistic mine fields in my profession. I usually approach as the unknowing – my English is poor and I often do not understand everything at first.

It appears to me that dialogues importantly constitute to the process of finding a problem’s solution in various types of situations where individuals or groups, privately or professionally, are having a conflict.

I am familiarizing myself with the new fields in order to help communication find a start.

I realized that my function in Kish would be different, somehow easier. I would be watching without stepping in. No one would be expecting me to trigger two parties’ willingness to communicate and deal with conflicts through dialogues.

Even though the context of my journey was business related, I was traveling from the perspective of an observer.[2]



Dialogues – reflection of particular forms of communication


Dialogues between cultures – what could that be? What could be meant by that? It seems peaceful, seeking for agreement. Authors are generally known as peaceful fighters, words being their own weapons which are used against competitors. Cultures of the world are equal partners of a conversation, the result of which is being used to each party’s advantage. A glance at history books or the daily news shows a different reality – a sad one. A current example: Various world cultures jointly decide that war criminals shall be tried in a Last Judgment. However, at the same time, one of the initiating countries itself appears not to be affected by such declaration. The soldiers of the concerned world power are being held sacrosanct – unlike war criminals of all other cultures, who will be subject of previously stated decisions. This is an example of the limits of conversation. Human communication requires a high level of preconditioning. Consequently, dialogues often fail through a lack of qualification. Alternatively, one could say that we should not be surprised if communication fails but appreciate it where it is successful.


What is the meaning of dialogues? In order to answer this question, I would like to define the subject gradually. Systemic theorists would probably name the observed interaction of the parties a dialogue. Accordingly, dialogues would be a particular form of human communication. Monologues, silence, discussions, arguments, orders or verbal attacking would be other forms of human communication. The shaping of social systems is being determined by the particular interaction (for example dialogues) generated within such system. The languishing Romeo and Juliet (It was the lark…) create a different reaction than the rasping voice of the sergeant (Platoon halt!).

This means that dialogues are organizing the shaping of the respective social system, which on the other hand may generate dialogues. They are highly influencing the cooperation of a system, which at the same time determines whether dialogues may be developing or whether other forms of interactions may be arising. It becomes visible that simple interrelations between cause and effect or plain models of if – than do not provide far reaching explanations.

It appears that precision is what is needed.[3] The word dialogue is one of those expressions which have a highly inflationary meaning, which long has become part of the modern language.[4] However, the word’s professional context remains highly important and useful. Consequently, the common meaning of the word and its professional definition must be differentiated at all times. In the following paragraph, I talk about the process of a dialogue when I mean the service connected with it. In order to approach a definition of the word dialogue it appears useful to explain what is clearly not mentioned by the concerned expression. In everyday situations, for example, the language we are using to talk to friends or colleagues is often a means of discussion. We find ourselves using arguments, debates, verbal maneuvers, self-portrayal, silence or the random production of noises to prove our opinions. Only sometimes do we experience that the other’s wording inspires us rather than limits us, that we remain interested and boredom is no apparent danger. It appears that not all verbal actions can be named dialogues. A certain attitude is required. It consists of respect for the other’s elaborations as well as the interest and curiosity in their philosophies of life.

Any number of people can have a dialogue between them. The limit of participants is being achieved when direct communication is no longer possible as a result of a particular number of people. Even where a conversation is designed very well, the respective limits will be achieved at approximately 100 participants. A common process of the dialogue would not be controllable, dialogues would stop and the group would fall apart.[5] The link between the individuals arises from the group’s joint production of sense.[6] If the specific way of production of sense appears no longer comprehensible to the individual, the group collapses (The suggestions of the others do not seem to make sense to me). Discussion may be dominated by a single person. The expert’s lecture may be brilliant, the strategy of a fight may produce a winning group or individual. In dialogues all win or all lose. Questions, opinions, assertions or hypothesis are being looked at, changed, dropped or processed but they will never be devalued. Each single thought, however contrary it may be to the other’s thoughts, is being preserved, put in relation to other ideas and processed. No sentence will be eliminated by a ban of communication. There may be sentences which are difficult to understand but they would not be considered wrong.

The concept of dialogues is very old. It is recognized in ancient Greece, by North American Indians and most institutional forms of senior boards. Establishments as the Council of wise men are operating almost always in the form of dialogues. In successful processes of dialogue the individuals are learning nothing less than joint thinking. The participants are leading themselves and others into resolutions which are valuable to all persons involved. When such a process is successful the dialogues become entertaining, efficient and stable. One of the essential characteristics of the respective processes consist of implicit assumption of the other party becoming visible and therefore subject of a verbal examination. There no longer is a hidden story behind the real situation but those differences which previously have been concealed are now legitimate and can therefore be communicated. Ones own presumptions are becoming interesting to the others rather than being kept secret (A well known philosopher and scientist for communication once declared: We are always aiming for something.)



How do you promote a dialogue?


Most likely there are various ways of promoting a dialogue and I assume that a lot of people are doing this every day.[7] In this context, the question is rather, how to promote a professional dialogue? In professional contexts one is expected to show a very high level of communicative competences, which at the same time creates potential room for consultancy. The consultant’s role is to lead the parties into communicating with each other in situations where communication is likely to break up or has already stopped. It is important to realize that dialogues are not an end in themselves but a means of resolving an existing problem or supporting the fulfillment of tasks. Hence, a communication stop would cause the effect that assignments are not being carried out. Communicational difficulties of this kind may arise between all sorts of parties. Examples would be employer – employee, two different departments of a business or two opponents who do not manage to agree on an particular issue. Professionally planned dialogues are commonly applied in situations where previously practiced forms of solving a conflict are not being effective anymore.[8]



Respect and curiosity


Respect stands for the action of respecting the interest of all parties involved. That does not include an “understanding the other” in a therapeutic way. It is based on the assumption that the parties to a conflict have good motives to act as they do. This is particularly true in situations where it is hard to see the other’s reasoning. It is the attempt to respect the other’s own logic. Whether this process will be successful can only be assessed in situations where the discrepancy between the parties is higher than their personal tolerance level would normally allow. It does not require tolerance to respect an opinion one agrees with but in order to accept an attitude one disagrees with, curiosity is essential. Elements of such respect are the hiding of one’s superiority, the acceptance of differences. Naturally, differences are being detected as soon as they create awkwardness and discomfort. As opposed to the romantic idea that therapy means to understand everything and everyone, which is either based on lies or fails as a therapeutic method, respect is a mental and verbal discipline. It constitutes the attempt to take ones views seriously and translate them into actions. Curiosity is combined with a waiver of direct interference. It is observing, trying to understand, being interested in changes. It is an exciting piece of spoken literature, of which the author, the director, the action and especially the outcome are unknown. Such curiosity requires the discipline of not knowing. It is essential to avoid cumbersome certainty but remain questioning. Only those who do not have the knowledge may preserve their curiosity. Those who know are losing it. Where it is not possible to win it back one is confronting the end of mental development.





Structuring the context


A dialogue consists of various factors which are closely (inter)related. These elements of the process, such as space, time, or interests are essential to the success of a dialogue. Consequently, their structure is one of the main objects of the consultant’s work.[9]

The creation of such context shall be explained by a metaphor:

A small river carries mud, wood, sand and stones. A variety of small animals, fish and crayfish romp about. Suddenly branches and copse get stuck and start building up a natural dam wall with the mud. The river bursts its banks and floads the countryside. As soon as some of the central branches are being removed the river starts regulating itself.

The promotion of a dialogue is similar to the restoration of the natural river. However, the way of clearing those elements within the river which could cause a disturbance of the flow are not defined in detail. The re-establishment of communication removes barriers. The process of dialoguing can be triggered but not planned. The parties involved cannot be forced into the process nor can it be ordered by a consultant (You cannot dictate the river its way!). However, one can create a context within which the determined aim is being promoted. This is what we understand the design of a dialogue to be.



To perform well at the obvious

shows professionalism

El Pucheno


The arrangement of the rhythm


Interactions are regarded as a dialogue where there is equal exchange of wording within the communication process. The distribution of interaction modes should almost be even as well as the subject of the dialogue should be structured logically.[10] The structural concept of a dialogue is essential to the forming of a rhythm within the process.

Firstly, the dialogue needs to be started off, which is initiated by the parties most of the time. If only one of the parties is interested in communication, the consultant needs to intervene accordingly. A large difference can be recognized to dynamic group seminars and trainings which exclusively focus on self regulation through the group. There is hardly any support available for these kinds of settings. Where the parties are remaining silent a communication break down may occur which could be weighing heavily on the shoulders of members of the group. Therefore we should only talk about the promotion of a dialogue when a matching behavior is detectable. At the same time, and this constitutes the difficulty of consultancy, the activities of the consultant must not move faster than the clients may follow. One should always adhere to the clients rhythm and adapt to their speed.

Secondly, the parties involved should be encouraged to express in words their interests and the issues they would to address. The consultant may use questioning techniques to achieve the respective result. The verbalizing should be followed by the listening. It may seem banal but verbal expressions can only become part of a dialogue if they are listened to by others. An old Indian saying describes the ear of the gate to our soul. A modification could be that the ear is a gate to the dialogue.

In addition to the verbalizing and listening, this sensitive game of the dialogue contains reflection. Reflections are commonly moving along with the rest of the process without being visible. The second kind constitute explicitly phrased reflections, which deepen explanations through a change of perspectives. Such reflections allow a precision of the objects of the communication and those presumptions hiding behind them. Only if these objections are getting communicated may trust be built up. Trust provides for the assumption that the other one means what he is saying. This causes certainty and maneuvers lose their importance.

The right relation between operatively structuring a dialogue and reflection is achieved only at a certain speed of the process. If the dialogue processes too fast, reflections are not possible. However, if the process develops too slowly, the focus of attention is shifted. Single participants may physically be present but their contribution to the process has stopped. The arrangement of the rhythm may be obtained by verbal or other forms of interventions, such as deciding on seating patterns, structuring the breaks, determining the speed of speaking and the operation of technical elements.



When would a dialogue be helpful?


The abovementioned way of designing a dialogue may be applied if alternative methods have failed. Fighting which does not seem to find an end through words and other ways of threatening may be stopped by this practice. The opponents can either disagree on business related issues or find themselves not being able to cooperate in at their daily professional surrounding. There are various possibilities of creating an impossibility to communicate. Consultants are trying to help the parties to overcome the hurdles and trigger the development of solutions.



What happens in the run-up of the process?


One of the parties of the conflict approaches a consultant for support. If the consultant considers the abovementioned concept helpful to the conflict he will suggest to proceed. The party which arranges for professional advise possibly invites their opponent automatically. However, it is relatively common for the consultant to do so. Similar to diplomats, they are negotiating about possible meetings. These preparatory activities are merely being applied in order to achieve the actual process of dealing with the conflict. The subject of the conflict is not an issue at this stage. The parties determine conditions which they feel need to be fulfilled in order to achieve a successful dialogue. At the same time claims which would fail for the impossibility of the other party to achieve them need to be filtered out. If the preparation of a project appears impossible, the consultant’s last activity will be to communicate to the parties the failure of the process.[11] The preparatory stage becomes a first step of the successful process where it is possible to proceed to the next step even though initial attitudes and opinion have been announced. Factors which are highly relevant to the preparation are: the place, time and number of participants. The consultant moves between opposing attitudes and negotiates about a possible meeting of the parties. The finally agreed upon conditions of a dialogue will be written down on a flip chart and memorized by verbalizing them. They constitute a starting point of the process which appliance is being controlled by the consultant. This implicitly releases a signal that agreements should be taken seriously. In the course of the next stages of the dialogue, the consultant should not hinder the parties in dealing with the conflict independently. However, wherever there appears to be a threat of communication break down, he should intervene.






The process of a dialogue is not the only way of dealing with a conflict and probably not even the fastest cure. Between the lines of specialized literature we can sometimes read the author’s opinion of dialogues being the most valuable kind of problem solving in the light of morality and ethic. However, one should be careful to generalize since it appears essential to the process to remain open minded. In other worlds, it would not be appropriate to use the process of a dialogue to change the world. The enthusiasm of a missionary does not allow for openness – a required element of a successful dialogue. Hence, the process of a dialogue does not constitute possible matching solutions to a conflict if one party is focused on certain ways of dealing with the problem. The dialogue would become a means of enforcing the attempted aim. The respective openness provides for the ability of the parties to rethink their opinions and possibly even accept those ideas of the others even. Dialogues shall not be used to influence the parties and lead them towards a certain outcome. Communication in such a context would be nothing more than manipulation, which would cause mistrust and accusations.[12]

Dialogues are not very useful to enforce one’s power. To achieve an effective dialogue between to parties is particularly difficult if hierarchical differences are great. Such discrepancies then need to be reflected alongside the subject matter itself. Wherever the individuals see a good chance to successfully attack others and defend themselves, they will do so. These patterns are being culturally sanctioned to a high level, we are familiar with them. However, as soon as common practice has lost its effects decision have to be made. Should one keep doing the same thing if he is experiencing a decrease of success or should one try something new – for example a dialogue?


Finally I would like to add a warning as well as a reassurance. If dialogues are successful they create insights which complicate any fighting in the future. However, and this is the consolation, not all dialogues are successful ones.


In a few hours I will be landing in Frankfurt. I will be asked about my impression of the Persian Gulf and in particular the island Kish. I will be reporting about dialogues without consultants, about kindness and hospitality, about how much I learned about communication and dialogues within certain cultures.

[1] I would like to thank Ana Elisabeth Schwertl for her valuable suggestions and translation into English.

[2] All those who can appreciate the exploration of a foreign country primarily as an observing act of learning and gaining, will know that too many of us have traveled in company of their ignorance and own truth only.

[3] In the following passage I deal with a particular understanding of the word dialogue. According to the ideas of K3 Beratergruppe Frankfurt I talk about dialogues in the sense of a process. The initiation of such process often constitutes the condition for conflict management, the preparation of cooperation or cultural changes.

[4] I recently detected the “dialogue of fruits“ on a restaurant’s menu.

[5] At those events where people are working in big groups, the stated problem is being solved by a subdivision into smaller working units, which are capable to communicate. Speakers of each group are than joining the individual dialogues together.

[6] Technically speaking all participants centre around the same issue.

[7] Think about a dialogue between two people who are in love…

[8] An example: Modern society and culture provides for legal remedies in situations where discrepancies irreconcilable. In theory such practice is practical for all parties involved. However, in reality, a civil action causes enormous costs and it is common practice to settle the case, which does not cover the lawyers’ fees.

[9] A simple example: In the movie theatre everyone can see the screen but the seating in rows makes it difficult for the visitors to communicate.

[10] For those parties of an interaction which are not very experienced and disciplined in their way of communicating it appears much more difficult to follow the structure of a particular dialogue.

[11] In the light of intervention this may work as a last resort.

[12] Surprisingly, conflicts of the abovementioned kind can be found especially in social systems which consider themselves as particularly ethic. The outstanding flag of political correctness is often a warning signal for lack of commitment.

Leave a Reply