People in conversation

Why Dialogue?

Matt Sweeney

In short: Pelé. Nicaragua. Studs Terkel. Bus rides. Democracy.

Hello world. As a way of both introducing myself and sparking reflection on the challenge of bringing people together to dialogue on important public issues, I’d like to explore what brings me to dialogue. Why dialogue? What was the hook—from the beginning? What about now?

Resisting the urge to seek guidance in academic articles or books, blogs or news media, manuals or guidebooks, what follows is my attempt to answer these questions, with my voice, based on my experiences.

Soccer and curiosity

I grew up outside of Chicago. I played soccer—travel soccer (impressed?). This travel brought me into direct contact with other tribes, or, soccer clubs. I wondered about these tribes. Who were they? Then, the 1994 World Cup introduced me to much, much bigger tribes. I wondered about people in other countries. I became interested in others.


I talked with strangers. Maybe I was bored—so I explored and sought out the new by talking with strangers. Not just any strangers, but those I found interesting. And this attraction to the interesting unknown got me out of Illinois, and eventually out of the U.S.

First, for the adventure. Which took me to Maine. Then Costa Rica. Nicaragua. More places.

Awareness and injustice (critical consciousness!)

Perhaps inevitably, my expectations for dialogue became a little more serious. Stakes became involved. Stakes!

These “adventures” exposed me to very different realities, and unexpectedly, I encountered situations that left me more than indignant. The injustice of poverty, especially, lit an internal fire.

I began to shift from dialogue for exploration with others, to dialogue for intentional learning and action on issues that matter. Unfortunately, for a while I didn’t really listen. I thought I knew what was wrong, and what was needed.

Thankfully, Paulo Freire and Studs Terkel suggested I listen. Inspired by their work, I began to think about exchanging perspectives on our realities as a method for becoming aware of “what is wrong”—towards a critical awareness needed to ultimately take on injustice! But when, where, and how to begin these conversations? Somehow talking to strangers on public transit didn’t seem like enough.

Around this time I came across the term “participatory dialogue,” and shortly thereafter traveled overland from Chicago to Buenos Aires (lots of buses) with romantic ideas of peacebuilding dialogue processes in my head.

Humanization and Relationships

On my travels, I was thrilled to find organized dialogue events, such as film forums. During one of them, in San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico), people actually talked after the movie in a mostly respectful way.

But even then—and during most public dialogue I experienced where people actually spoke—the conversation was short, dominated by a few voices, and not very “safe.”  And, it felt essentialist. Stereotypes and questionable statistics, everywhere.

Feeling put into an “American” box during many of my public conversations, my goal for a while became to deconstruct group identities—identities I felt were “imagined.”

The idealistic notion behind this: through dialogue, first individualize and humanize “others,” to then build individual relationships that transcend groups, creating shared identities that allow us to care for others everywhere, not just our “own.”

From there, I went on to organize the “Beyond Polarization Dialogues” in Milwaukee, rooted in the Public Conversations method. In a ‘divided’ Wisconsin context, these dialogues brought together individuals from many political persuasions in a way that effectively fostered mutual understanding and relationship building. The dialogues were highly valued, and a great start.

Legitimacy and Fairness → Democracy

At the conclusion of these dialogues, the most common question was: What next?

I very much believe in that idealistic notion of transforming conflict through conversation—it is at the core of what brings me to dialogue. But, after the mutual understanding and relationship building amongst difference—then what?

Thinking on this question has brought me to explore methods such as deliberative pollingcivic lotteries, and other ‘deliberative democracy’ practices. Breathing greater legitimacy and fairness into democracy through inclusive, deliberative, and representative public decision-making on public issues—that vision brings me to dialogue. Dialogue, with democratic teeth!

Why dialogue?

These factors, with varying degrees of influence at different times and in different places, bring me to dialogue. Accordingly, my understanding of the word “dialogue” is quite flexible: from very informal, exploratory conversation, to structured and facilitated conversation for mutual understanding, to the practices of democratic deliberation involved in participatory governance.