Finding Common Ground: Dialogue About Identity

By Emily Kastor

“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up his or her identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other.” – Dr. Harold Saunders, Founder and President of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue.

Sustained Dialogue was first brought to the Diversity Awareness Office at MSU in 2011 in response to a lack of positive relationships and conflict resolution between people of diverse identities on campus. Sustained Dialogue has since grown into an organization that changes the lives of people of all identities by offering ways for students, professors and members of the community to be more inclusive in their language and behavior. Sustained Dialogue creates spaces for everyone to embrace, be comfortable in and express their own unique identity and has made a powerful impact by promoting deep and meaningful relationships on MSU’s campus.

The process of dialogue is something very different than the average conversation. In dialogue, deeply listening to others is equally as important and impactful as sharing one’s personal experiences. Participants are expected not only to listen so deeply that they are changed by what they hear, but to listen deeper when there is disagreement.

Participants are also encouraged to speak from personal experience by using “I statements” and not generalizing for an entire population or group. These specific aspects of dialogue are important because they lead to finding shared meaning and real common-ground with other members of the group. By finding common ground with people of the same community, one is able to truly come to the understanding of not being alone in this world and get the support they seek.

The goal of engaging in dialogue is for participants to allow themselves to be changed by being open to new ideas, experiences, and people. This goal is something very unique and specific to dialogue, that isn’t found in debates or even everyday conversations. In dialogue one is expected to listen without judgement and with a view to understand and to re-evaluate and acknowledge previous assumptions and biases one might have towards a certain subject.  By doing this, one is able to listen deeply enough to be changed by what they hear, instead of just listening to respond. If aspects like these were brought into everyday social interactions, this campus would finally be able to be truly accepting and understanding of people of all backgrounds.

Since it was founded on campus, Sustained Dialogue has been promoting the creation of positive relationships between people of diverse backgrounds by offering ways for everyone to dialogue about their own identities. Sustained Dialogue’s vision is to give all people the tools to create a community where people of all identities can thrive and only by continuing to support — and grow — Sustained Dialogue, can our campus turn into a community of such.

Disclaimer: Emily is a member of Sustained Dialogue.