An Introduction to the Old Testament for Deacons: Dialogue

In his public statements, Pope Francis uses the word dialogue often.  In Laudato Si, he used the word dialogue 25 times.  In Lumen Fidei, he used this word a dozen times.  In Evangelii Gaudium, the word dialogue is used 59 times.

His emphasis on dialogue is a treat for me.  At age twenty, I entered philosophy studies at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.  Dialogue was expected in our classes.  At this same time, I lived at Theological College on the campus of The Catholic University.  One of the first days there, we were handed a document which stated that Theological College was a dialogical community; a community which discovered insights and reached decisions by means of dialogue.

Because of these experiences, every class I have taught has been conducted in a dialogical fashion.

However, over my thirty plus years of teaching, I have discovered certain obstacles to building and facilitating a dialogical environment.

One obstacle are talk-a-holics who speak without stopping.  These persons don’t use speech to state ideas, but speak so as to find ideas.  They sometimes just like to hear themselves speaking.  And, instead of coming to a conclusion when an idea has been stated, they seamlessly slip into talking about another idea.

A second obstacle is the person who begins a lecture (or homily) in an organized manner but then loses track of her/his train of thought and because of an embarrassed dis-ease, will talk until they find a conclusion.

A third obstacle happens often in R.C.I.A. settings.  An important part of R.C.I.A. is to encourage catechumens and candidates to talk about their faith, about their religious practice, and about their life experience.  What often happens is that the sponsors and/or members of the presenting team do most of the talking.

A fourth obstacle is the person who often, or exclusively, uses speech to preach at others.  For this person, a discussion is not a dialogue but a series of monologues.  This person does not listen to what others have to say.

To counteract these and other obstacles, I have learned to use a number of behaviors in the classes I teach and groups I facilitate.  I model the dialogical behaviors I seek to encourage.  For example, I let people talk.  In order to let people talk, I have become comfortable sitting with a group in silence until members of the group not use to speaking in a group begin doing so.  Or, sometimes, to get these persons to talk, I might create a gentle sequestration rule following a question, such as, “Since this question deals specifically with the experiences of those new to Catholicism, I would like to hear the thoughts of those here who are catechumens.”

I also begin some of my classes and groups by introducing the participants to the history of dialogue in the western tradition.  I will speak of Socrates and Plato who modeled dialogical investigation, recorded in Plato’s works aptly called The Dialogues.  I will share quotes by Mortimer Adler and Alfred Maynard Hutchins stating that the spirit of the west is the spirit of the Dialogue.  Using ideas of a Thomas Prufer of The Catholic University’s School of Philosophy, I will suggest to the group present that what we are about to do is sitting at a timeless table of discourse at which real persons and ancestral voices (represented by their primary source texts) gather in dialogue about ideas of enduring importance.

And then, near the end of these comments, I might share what I call The Rules of Dialogical Courtesy.  I may share some of these rules a second or third time, as their repetition is needed during the days or weeks or months the group meets.  I might post some on the walls and draw attention to them.  I try to avoid specifically pointing out specific rules to specific persons as they act in a dialogically discourteous manner.  However, with a bit of levity or self-deprecation, I may, challenge an individual.  For example, in order to stop the talk-a-holic, I might share (when the opportunity presents itself) how once I was into a long boring monologue until I noticed one of my students snoring.

Dialogue is the use of disciplined speech, among friends, in a leisure environment, to discover and display ideas of enduring importance.

By means of dialogue we come to discover and display new insights.  By teaching and modeling dialogue, we help our audience become attentive to those insights which may change their thinking and behavior.  The experience of dialogue and the awareness of insights gained as a result of dialogue may change the thinking and behavior of one’s intended audience.

It is valuable to understand the difference between dialogue and rhetoric.  Dialogue is the use of disciplined speech to discover and display ideas.  Rhetoric is the use of disciplined speech (and the use of other techniques) in order to persuade.  

Dialogue presents and displays ideas, after which the other participants to the dialogue are allowed to accept the idea presented or to not accept it.

Rhetoric uses a number of ploys to coerce the audience to agree with the statement made.  These ploys include not speaking, speaking too much and too often, asking questions instead of making statements, repeating statements, rambling on, creating distractions or disruptions, not reading assigned material, not listening to the person speaking, speaking in a loud voice.


  1. SPEAK:  Each person should speak.  No one should remain silent.
  2. MAKE STATEMENTS/AVOID ASKING QUESTIONS:  When one speaks, s/he should avoid asking questions, rhetorical or actual.  Instead, one should make statements.
  3. AVOID REPEATING STATEMENTS:  One should, in general, not repeat one’s own statements.  (There are times when a repetition is necessary; say, for example, when someone was unable to hear a statement due to a door being loudly shut.)
  4. CLEARLY FINISH STATEMENTS:  The speaker should clearly indicate when s/he is done speaking.  Colloquially, we might say the speaker should put a definitive period on his/her comments.  The speaker should avoid trailing off in an unfinished manner.  Speakers should avoid rambling on so as to find a conclusion.
  5. DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY AND SAY IT:  It is best for the person who wishes to speak, to first clearly decide what s/he wants to say and then, when s/he has the opportunity to speak, to concisely state what it is s/he wanted to say.
  6. AVOID DISTRACTIONS/BEING DISTRACTED:  No one should engage in distracting or disrupting actions which draw attention away from the person speaking.
  7. ALLOW SPEAKERS TO FINISH:  One should speak only when the person currently speaking is clearly finished talking.
  8. PROVIDE SUMMARY REPETITION:  When one speaks, it is good, before sharing one’s own thoughts, to concisely and clearly and accurately repeat the ideas shared by previous speakers about which one wishes to comment.
  9. MODERATE SPEECH:  One should moderate the amount of time and number of times s/he speaks.  A general rule is that each individual should speak less and less often than the rest of group as a whole speaks.
  10. LEISURE ENVIRONMENT: A dialogue should take place in a room free from noise and disruption.  If possible, children should not be present.
  11. FACE TO FACE:  Dialogue requires physical presence.  Avoid, if possible, conducting sessions online.
  12. AVOID TIME CONSTRAINTS:  Ideally, the dialogue should have no set amount of time.  The dialogue should be allowed to continue as long as the group wishes to discuss the topic at hand.
  13. HAVE REQUESTED ITEMS:  Each participant should come with all required texts and with the means to take notes.
  14. DO ASSIGNED READINGS:  If a document was assigned for reading prior to the dialogue, each participant should read that material ahead of time.
  15. SILENTLY REREAD:  If a document of many passages/paragraphs will be read aloud during the dialogue,  it is best to read it aloud in the following manner.  Person A reads the first passage/paragraph aloud.  Person B will read the second /passage/paragraph aloud, but only after Person B (and the rest of the dialogical group) have first re-read the first passage/paragraph again silently.  Persons C will read the third passage/paragraph aloud, but only after all have silently read the second passage/paragraph.  And so on.
  16. MARK UP TEXT:  When a document is being read aloud, the other participants should also follow along by silently reading the passage/paragraph being read aloud.  (Participants should not read ahead of the section which is being read aloud.)  During those times when previous passages/paragraphs are silently being reread, participants should mark the passages they are silently rereading by highlighting (with a circle or underline) anything which catches their attention.  Also, the participants should place a mark next to each highlighted piece of text.  The mark should take the form of a plus mark (+) if the statement is one with which the participant agrees, a negative mark (-) if the statement is one with which the participant disagrees, or a question mark (?) if the statement is one which is unclear to the participant.  Participants might also add comments near these marks, explaining why they caught his/her attention.
  17. PROVIDE TEXT DIRECTIONS:  When one wishes to comment about a statement found in the text all participants have on hand, it is good to first direct everyone’s attention to exactly where the passage to be commented upon is found.  (For example, “I took issue with what was said on page fifteen, in the second full paragraph, in the sentence beginning with the words (so and so).”  Then one pauses briefly while others find this passage and once they seem to have done so, then the speaker continues with his/her comments about that textual statement.)  In dialogue it is valuable to display courtesy toward ancestral voices (i.e. primary source texts) with the same courtesy one displays toward and with other persons with whom we engage in dialogue.

The detailed and nuanced manner in which I presented these rules of dialogue may have seemed pedantic to you.  Perhaps you found the excessive focus on detail irritating and offensive.  Perhaps you were justified in feeling so.  I apologize.

On the other hand, I want you to have in one place every detail of what constitutes dialogue.  On your own you can decide to use or not use, in part or in whole, what was just shared with you.  I have displayed for you ideas presented to me about dialogue and ideas I have about dialogue.  You are free to use or reject them.

Should you choose to use my material on dialogue with groups with whom you work in the future, I would like to offer a few more general comments for your consideration.

I find it easy to teach this stuff on dialogue to adolescents and young adults.  Because I am so much older, they often assume that it is important and that they should be attentive to what I am saying.

Older adults might not be receptive.  Nonetheless, it is usually just this group who needs to know what dialogue is and how dialogue manifests itself.  Thus, I use a version of an old homiletics trick, which is, if you want to make sure the adults in an audience will listen to your words, all you need to say is, “What I am now about to say is meant only for the children present.”

So, with an older adult group I might start out with a statement about the emphasis Pope Francis puts on dialogue.  I follow this by saying the following, “I have found there is confusion about what dialogue actually is.  In response to this confusion, I have come up with statements about what dialogue is and what it is not.  I call these statements The Rules of Dialogical Courtesy.  I often share these rules of Dialogical Courtesy with groups of teenagers and young adults whom I teach.  These are those statements which I share with groups of teenagers.”  And then I simply tell the adult group the points I wish to make about dialogue.

I want to close by returning to the definition of the word dialogue and pointing out some remarkable aspects about the words used in that definition.

I defined dialogue as “the use of disciplined speech, among friends, in a leisure environment, to discover and display ideas of enduring importance.”  There are four phrases in that definition, “disciplined speech”, “among friends”, “leisure environment”, “ideas of enduring importance”.  I will take these one by one and make a comment or two about each.

Ideas of enduring importance refer to important ideas which re-surface, time and again, in millennia long human conversations and writings; ideas such as beauty, freedom, eternity, love, death, government, law, and the like.  There are many such ideas of enduring importance.  “Hailey likes ice cream” is an idea.  But it is not an important idea.  “What will Hailey do when she grows up?” is an important idea, but it is not an idea of enduring importance.  In all likelihood, a century after Hailey is dead, no one will think of Hailey; much less about what she did with her life.  However, if in one of her homilies, Hailey says something new and valuable about freedom or love, it is possible that idea will be repeated in the future.  That would be an idea of enduring importance.

By leisure environment, we mean things which are conducive to holding a dialogue.  We mean being able to control the noise, and not placing constraints on the length of time it will take to fully discuss a given topic.  In this regard of creating an environment which is leisurely, it is interesting to note that the ancient Greek language word which meant “leisure” was pronounced sko-lay.  Sko-lay is the Greek word from which the words school and scholar are phonetically derived.  The words school and scholar are derived from a word which meant leisure.

The word “friends” is key in the phrase that a dialogue occurs among friends.  By friends, we do not mean that the participants to the dialogue like each other.  They may, in fact, have no feelings at all for one another.  By friends, we mean that all present agree to not engage in rhetoric; we do not attempt to coerce, manipulate, or control the thinking of the others present.  We agree to display our ideas and allow others to pick those ideas up, examine them, accept or reject them.

By “the use of disciplined speech”, in general we mean that “we say what we mean and we mean what we say”.  More specifically, we speak clearly and concisely.  We avoid mumbling.  We avoid all forms of rhetorical manipulation.  We avoid equivocation; that is, we make sure the entire dialogical group has similar understandings of the words we use.  We use our speech to state the ideas we have.  We use speech to discover insights.  We use speech to display the insights we have.


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