Daniel Yankelovich

The Magic of Dialogue

VTR Date: September 21, 1999

Daniel Yankelovich describes how conflict may be transformed into cooperation.


GUEST: Daniel Yankelovich
VTR: 09/21/1999

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when my guest today first joined me at this table I hardly would have thought that now – a quarter century later – I would find myself humming those wonderful old lyrics: “that old black magic has me in its spell, that old black magic that you weave so well”.

For public opinion guru Daniel Yankelovich has now titled h is new Simon and Schuster book “the Magic of Dialogue…Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation”. And there just may be a little black magic involved here!

Now while others – like our mutual friend Deborah Tannen, who talked with me here about her recently published “The Argument Culture” – desperately urges Americans to move from debate to dialogue in order to blunt what Ms. Tannen describes as “That most dangerous blade of the argument culture”, it is my guest today who most systematically, yet also almost mystically, presses upon us what he sees as the magical healing, nurturing qualities of dialogue..as he defines dialogue, of course.

Indeed, my guest concludes his book, “the Magic of Dialogue” with his own article of faith: “…I believe that greater mastery of dialogue will advance our civility – and our civilization – a giant step forward.

He writes, “Dialogue has the magic to help us do it”. And I’m going to ask Daniel Yankelovich to explain that magic…that so clearly has him in its spell. Dan?

YANKELOVICH: It’s a funny word for me to use…

HEFFNER: I know.

YANKELOVICH: …as a social scientist. It didn’t come easily. But the thing that struck me about dialogue was the good feelings it stirs up in people. I always wondered why…people would meet, they’d engage in dialogue, and they’d come away with the feeling of great warmth toward each other; almost an intimacy. And that was…that was a mystery to me that I wanted to follow up. And I think where it comes from is when you engage somebody in dialogue, you engage them at a level of discourse that goes underneath the superficialities, underneath the ego, and you are talking directly, connecting with the person’s deepest assumptions. And in real dialogue the person with whom you’re engaged is open to change. There’s a kind of intimacy in that process. It’s intimacy between strangers, but it’s a kind of intimacy that when people connect that way, they feel very good toward each other. So when you transform conflict into cooperation you break through stereotypes and you sort of get to the heart of the other person.

HEFFNER: I gather you’ve seen this at work, you…as you write in the corporate world and on other levels.

YANKELOVICH: Oh, yes. I see it quite a bit, and you know it’s simple. And it happens in many simple ways. I think the most vivid example for me…focus groups with African Americans and Whites. They’re not used to talking to each other. And in dialogue on some issues that are of concern to them, like racial prejudice, you can almost hear the stereotypes falling away. That they talk to each other as human being across that void, across that difference in frameworks. And they let go of the stereotypes. And they start talking to each other as people. Now, ordinarily you wouldn’t think that that’s very miraculous or magical. But they haven’t been doing that. So you don’t see it as vividly in other groups, but it, it…when it happens, it’s very clear.

HEFFNER: You know I was puzzled about your requirements for dialogue.


HEFFNER: What are they? You don’t just mean two fellows sitting down and talking to each other.

YANKELOVICH: No. There are a series of skills that are involved in dialogue. I think the most difficult for people, particularly in the corporate world, is the ability to suspend status differences. So that you are talking to one another as a person, not as a boss to a subordinate, and vice versa. It’s not difficult to do…I mean it’s not easy to do. One of the movies that I mention in the book, which was very striking, was about King Arthur. And King Arthur and all his knights were sitting around a bigger version of this round table. And he was very pleased with himself and self-congratulatory. You know, “here we are, all equals because we are all sitting around this round table”. But he made all the decisions, he called all the shots, he was clearly the boss. So it takes more than a piece of furniture.

HEFFNER: Somewhere in this book you say we Americans aren’t very good at dialogue, we haven’t been very well trained.

YANKELOVICH: Well, because…you mentioned Deborah Tannen whose book “the Argument Culture” I think is a wonderful book. She makes the point that we have become an argument culture and my sense is that the society is 90% conflict and 10% cooperation. And sort of my ambition for dialogue is that I think it can move it more toward a 50/50 balance. I think that in her book she articulates the need for dialogue, and I elaborate how to do it, why to do it. It’s been very much…you know, you talk about the need for not being very good at it…it’s been on my mind the last couple of days reading the newspapers about this problem that IBM and other companies have gotten into with their employees…

HEFFNER: Pensions…

YANKELOVICH: Oh, the pensions. And the shift from the old type to the new type of pension deprives the older workers of their retirement benefits…a portion of them. The estimate ranges from 20% to maybe 40%, 50%. And the fact that the management of all of these companies was just startled by how upset people were, I think is a pretty good measure of how remote the notion of dialogue is from our ordinary discourse. A change of that sort… you know Americans like to have a voice in the decisions that affect their life. And a decision that is that far reaching just cries out for some kind of dialogue rather than this sort of one-way, talk-down type. All the good will in the world…I know the IBM management has a reputation and rightly so for being very fair minded, and even a management of that sort, that is as enlightened as they come, doesn’t think of dialogue as a first step. It doesn’t come naturally; it’s not the first thing that occurs to people. And I think it will…I hope it will in the future.

HEFFNER: You say, “I think it will, I hope it will”…


HEFFNER: Now, which is it Dan?

YANKELOVICH: Well, I hope it will…I’m not sure that it will (laughter). Because it’s so remote, it’s so remote from our experience. It’s so different. We fall into debate, into litigiousness, into conflict so easily. And to go to the trouble of listening carefully, of bringing up your own deepest assumptions and the assumptions of other people, looking at them together; these are not…these don’t come naturally, so I’m not sure that will happen.

HEFFNER: The reason I put my emphasis upon “that old black magic”…


HEFFNER: …not just because you use the word “magic”…


HEFFNER: …in your title, was because I had the feeling almost of something physical, chemical…


HEFFNER: …that was taking place in your descriptions of those times when there has been real dialogue.

YANKELOVICH: I think it is physical. I think that it’s physical, it’s visceral, it’s instinctive. We reach out to one another; we try to connect with one another. The frustration of modern life is that there are these obstacles…life is full of transactions…impersonal transactions. We’re hungry for relationships. I keep coming back to Martin Bruber’s phrase for dialogue, “I/Thou”, the intimacy of that, the connectedness of you and me encountering one another as people, rather than passing each other like ships in the night, or just having these impersonal transactions with each other.

HEFFNER: When you use the word “transactions”, I mean it rings such a loud and clear bell for me that I wondered how you could anticipate in a society that is as transactional as ours is, that is increasingly transactional, how you could find any optimism, any hope whatsoever.

YANKELOVICH: Well, I don’t think it’s…I don’t think it’s a remote hope. In the surveys that we do, we see every year an increase in the intensity of people’s desire for community, for civility, for this kind of encounter. It’s a need that is fundamental and when you don’t satisfy it, it comes out as a hunger, as a yearning. It’s almost in the same visceral category as food and sex. You need it. You need to have that closeness.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, that was the question I was going to put to you. In terms of your public opinion work, and you are probably our premier student of public opinion in this country today. What have you seen that has made you in any way hopeful about the future of dialogue?

YANKELOVICH: Well, in the public opinion field there’s no issue that is more contentious than abortion.


YANKELOVICH: And there is a group of people who are concerned with conflict resolution, who specialize in abortion. They bring people together who are opposed to each other on the abortion front, and when…their early experience, I mention stereotypes a moment ago. They are expecting to meet stereotypes across the table. And instead they encounter human beings who think very much like themselves and who agree with most of the things they think. When they have that experience, the stereotypes fall away, they begin to encounter one another and even when they…at the end of the dialogue…even when they continue to disagree with each other…they, the disagreement is civil and it’s based, maybe not always on, liking the other person, but having respect for the other person. Now you take an issue today like gun control. I don’t think that the distance between the pro and anti-gun people is as great as the emotional mistrust…one of the other. That even…they have the stereotypes of…for the gun control people, the gun people are ignorant yahoos. For the gun people, the gun control people are trying to undermine the Bill of rights. And neither side has respect for each other. It’s that lack of respect that’s keeping them from finding a substantial basis for agreement. I’m sure that if you got…if it wasn’t for the professional lobbyists, but if you got citizens who were pro-gun and anti-gun together in dialogue, they would find large areas to agree upon.

HEFFNER: Dan, have you tried this?

YANKELOVICH: Not on gun control. I’ve see it on racial issues, and on abortion and on a number of other issues. I’ve, I’ve been involved in focus groups with people who are involved in gun control and that’s part of what gave me the idea that it would…it really would work.

HEFFNER: I couldn’t help but let the phrase “perfectibility”, or “infinite perfectibility of mankind” cross my mind as I read your book, because conflict resolution leads obviously to so much that is good and that eliminates so much that is bad in our lives. But the empathy that you require for it in our…what you a moment ago referred to as our litigious society, seems so severely lacking and seems in so many ways to be undermined by those who find it in their interest to stir up the opposition.

YANKELOVICH: Well, there’s a lot of people who find it in their interest, to be sure. But the empathy is very close to the surface. There’s a crust…we’re very self-protective. We have to be self-protective in this world of transactions. But beneath that…I mean there’s no one more self-protective than New Yorkers on a subway, and a couple of months ago something happened to me. I was on the subway, I was sitting there and everybody was being mistrustful and rigid, and you know, you could…the hostility and the distance was palpable. And I happened to drop my briefcase and the papers spilled out just before I was going to get off the train. Everybody seated around me rushed to help pick up the papers. And I’m sure a minute later they went back to that kind of stoical silence. But you know, when we do a dialogue or focus group, people start off very stiff and, you know, they’re sure that it’s a case of mistaken identity, that “you don’t really want my opinion”. And then when we reassure them that we do, then you can’t stop them. It’s there, it’s just beneath the surface. It’s…the warmth, empathy, friendliness, civility, those are defining characteristics of Americans. So they’re, they’re not that remote.

HEFFNER: Well, you say those are the defining characteristics of Americans. But perhaps the most potent defining characteristic of America is the multiplicity of private interest practitioners. Those who make their living by pushing this point of view, and derogating that point of view. But pushing this product and derogating that product. And that seems to be the major conflict which is not going to be resolved empathetically.

YANKELOVICH: Well, I don’t think you can…I don’t even think it’d be a good idea to change the obsession with debate with an obsession with dialogue. It’s the balance that’s missing. That there are many issues where litigiousness and debate and argument are appropriate. But they’re not appropriate most of the time. They’re only appropriate part of the time. And, you know, in our private life as citizens, we’re not dominated by these lobbyists. They’re all over the newspapers and they’re in Washington. But that’s one of the reasons that people are cynical about politics because they don’t like the partisanship. They don’t like governance by interests. And, you know, if you take, for example, an issue like Social Security. For years it was regarded as sort of the third rail of American politics…touch it and you die…only been in recent months that people have realized that that’s not true, that the older people are concerned, not only for themselves, but their kids and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren are concerned about the older people. You get them together in dialogue and this I have done…and you’ll see that you find common ground very quickly.

HEFFNER: Dan, you’ve been in public opinion research for so long. What changes have you seen in the second half of this century just ending?

YANKELOVICH: In terms of public opinion?

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. Public attitudes.

YANKELOVICH: Yeah. I think that to me the biggest change is toward acceptance of pluralism, of diversity in our society. The Boston I grew up in was a narrow, prejudiced city. And the prejudice was the Boston Brahmans seemed to have a noblesse oblige but also a kind of snobbishness and ownership. They were the “owners”…

HEFFNER: King Arthur…

YANKELOVICH: Well, after…after these many years, the changes in the country, the…you see them in survey data if you go back 30 or 40 years. “Would you vote for a Black as President?” “Would you vote for a Jew as President?” “Would you vote for a woman as President?” “How would you feel about having somebody like that living next door to you?” And you just see the steady climb in acceptance. From minority…30% minorities to 80%, 90% majorities. We don’t appreciate how far we’ve come in diversity. You know, because it’s difficult. Because there is still some racism, and there is still some prejudice. We don’t realize how far we’ve come. We’ve come an enormous way. So I think that’s one of the big changes. I think another change is that we’ve gone from the conformity in the 1950s to choice of lifestyles, which is something that people value very greatly. And I think that was the issue in the impeachment of President Clinton. That it drove some groups crazy, that every time he was accused of a worse misdeed, his ratings seemed to go up. Well, looking at the polls, what it turned out to be was that Americans were more afraid of his accusers than of him. Because, you know, in a sense, he couldn’t do them much personal harm. But the accusers represented an older, self-righteous America that wants to legislate social morality. Americans don’t want to legislate social morality. That’s a huge change over this 30 or 40 year period. So you see that…a real cultural revolution that started in the sixties, but it has picked up momentum in several respects, such as those.

HEFFNER: What changes have taken place in other countries that correspond to what you’re talking about here?

YANKELOVICH: The…I think that…I talked about two changes; one is acceptance of diversity…


YANKELOVICH: …and the other was the individual…the breakdown in conformity, in social conformity. The breakdown in social conformity is true throughout the industrialized democracies. That if you look at Britain and France and Germany and the…particularly Holland and the Scandinavian countries, you see the same changes. The pattern is that they are about five years behind us. And…but you track them and they are exactly the same, so it suggests that that has to do with improvement in affluence, with democratization, with the evolution of our industrial democracy. I think that the changes with respect to diversity are unique to the United States. Because we live in a multi-racial society and we’re being successful at doing so. And the Japanese are having problems. The Germans are having problems. So in that respect I think…in that arena, our civilization is distinctive. But in the arena of changing social morality, sexual morality…life choices…that runs throughout all of the industrialized democracies.

HEFFNER: Dan, we only have a couple of minutes left. I want to ask you…this concept of the magic of dialogue…are the schools…the universities, by any chance teaching “it”. You don’t have to use the words…


HEFFNER: …the “magic of dialogue”…


HEFFNER: …but conflict resolution, perhaps.

YANKELOVICH: Well, they teach…the business schools teach negotiation. Negotiation…there are courses in negotiation in business schools and other graduate schools. But I think that negotiation…to me…negotiation comes after dialogue. That you…if you just go directly into negotiation…you with your interests and me and my interests and we don’t…haven’t established the kind of mutual understanding that comes from dialogue, the negotiation can break down. I don’t think that the place for dialogue is seeing…but nowadays with the number of books…my own and other people are looking at this subject and discovering, re-discovering a pre-scientific set of truths. I think there will be more focus on it.

HEFFNER: And on the level of our younger children in school…is there any indication at all that the schools are thinking in terms of the importance of gearing our population to this empathy that you require for dialogue?

YANKELOVICH: I, I think people…you know in the schools…teach be “nice-nice”. You know you should cooperate…

HEFFNER: That’s not what you’re talking about.

YANKELOVICH: No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an arduous exercise where people listen with empathy, where they suspend status differences, where they suspend their own assumptions, and don’t rush to judgment, and are truly responsive to the other. And that’s a discipline. The reason I…one of the reasons I wrote the book was this sort of thing happens accidentally, sporadically, a little bit at a time. And I ask the question, “Well, how could you make it happen more systematically and on a more regular basis?” And that’s what I tried to do in the book.

HEFFNER: And The Magic of Dialogue remains for me an absolutely extraordinary book. Dan Yankelovich, I’m so pleased that you would join me today and talk about transforming conflict into cooperation.

And I want to thank others who are watching us today for joining us here on The Open Mind and hope that they join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.