Dialogue as a Process for Community Change

In spite of all the hard work and valiant effort, there has never really been a blueprint to addressing and overturning the hard issues that affect our society. Racism persists. Homelessness persists. Poverty persists. There’s no perfect playbook that outlines problems and root causes, while also presenting real, tangible solutions and outcomes. 

For those ardent change-makers living in pursuit of this common good, it creates a very specific kind of tension to ensure the right people are at the table for the conversations, and the goal of representation or inclusion becomes priority over giving the time and space truly needed to tackle the hard conversations necessary for progress. 

Unfortunately, rather than taking in important voices and perspectives, most participants are listening for a cue to jump in – an opportunity to respond, which isn’t really listening at all. When we engage in a conversation only as a way to advance our position, we miss out on opportunities for true inclusion and progress, because it’s the merging of voices and expertise from those with differing backgrounds and lived experience exposes true community solutions. 

This is especially important to consider in community change work, where our goal is to find ways to improve community well-being for all. So much of our communication is talking at or past one another, seeking solely to further our own agendas. We work toward goals that are noble in pursuit, but often fail to address the root causes of the issues we care so deeply about, many times due to lack of true and committed dialogue. 

It is crucial to include dialogue in your community change process. According to the Communities WIN Dialogue Guide, put forth by Wellbeing in the Nation, dialogue “strengthens our sense of belonging and connection by building relationships.” Dialogue allows groups of people, with a diversity of perspectives, to listen, share, and discover – all in the name of community change. 

Dialogue demands that we enter every conversation with three intentions:

  1. Listen for what’s true for others

  2. Share what’s true for you

  3. Discover what we share in common

While these intentions may seem simple in concept, in practice they often push boundaries. 

Listen for what’s true for others. Two truths can exist at the same time. The reality and lived experience of others is just as real as what we experience ourselves. Setting aside the desire to categorize and organize experiences into fact or fiction goes a long way in meeting people where they are and understanding where they want to go. 

Share what’s true for you. A major part of dialogue is the ability to speak our own truths and offer up a sense of vulnerability. Oftentimes the topics that need to be weeded through in community change work are triggering and tiresome. Create a space that conveys a sense of psychological safety where each person’s experience is respected as truth. 

Discover what we share in common. A tool to use during particularly hard dialogues is LARA. LARA is a method of nonviolent communication that is geared at providing a way to navigate through hard conversations and heavy subject matter. 

  • Listen – In a dialogue, listen for true understanding of the other person, not just for the opportunity to add in your perspective.

  • Affirm – So many people just want to be heard. It takes a lot of courage to share experiences or divergent opinions. Affirm that you have heard the other person and build a connection to what they have told you.

  • Respond  – Respond to the points and information the other person has provided, show them that you have heard their questions or concerns and take them seriously.

  • Add information – Add information about your own personal experience, things you believe to be true, inquire for more information. Keep engaging and repeat LARA!

Before true and meaningful community change can occur, before we can ever get to plans that outline problems and root causes, and present real, tangible solutions and outcomes, dialogue has to underpin the entire process. Without dialogue, the most vulnerable and underserved voices get lost in the shuffle or completely overlooked. But with dialogue, the pathway to well-being for all becomes possible. Because as former U.S Senator Paul Wellstone once said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

Download your copy of Communities WIN: A Community Guide for Dialogue and Action now.


Andrea Waner, MPA. Andrea is a social equity and human rights policy educator located in Columbia, Missouri.  She is a contributing writer for Community Commons.

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