Dialogue institute nears approval

Mar 07, 2002, vol. 23, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University is closer to launching a new research initiative dedicated to helping people achieve one of the most elusive goals in human communication - dialogue.

Senate recently approved the development of a dialogue institute at SFU's downtown Wosk centre for dialogue.

The proposal still has to be approved by the board of governors.
SFU communication professor Robert Anderson is the chair of a seven-member steering committee appointed to oversee the development of the institute as an academic extension of, and bridge to the centre for dialogue.

Anderson says surmounting the difficulties that often impede dialogue is akin to “the need for fresh air.”

“When a communication process isn't working, it needs air, room to breathe,” reflects Anderson, an expert on dialogue and negotiation as communication in situations of conflict.

“People often confuse dialogue with debate. They think dialogue is easy. But you just have to look at the conflicts in our own backyard and on an international scale to see that it's not easy.”

The institute's steering committee will help SFU create undergraduate, graduate and professional development credit courses on dialogue.

They will cover the history of dialogue as a communication process, its application across many disciplines and factors influencing its achievement.

“Some key conditions have to be met to achieve successful dialogue,” notes Anderson. “Pre-judgements must be suspended. Unconditional listening must occur without watching the clock. Sufficient time must be set aside so that everybody is heard. Difficult issues might be understood if these conditions are met.”

Anderson says, for a variety of reasons, such as different cultural traditions and indifference, these conditions are often not met.

The institute's students and researchers will be able to observe dialogue in the centre for dialogue, which will become a real time laboratory.

Student interns and faculty will be involved in the design of community-based forums aimed at generating public dialogue on major issues such as tourism, environmental sustainability or treaty making.

Biological sciences professor Mark Winston has been appointed a fellow of the centre. Renowned for his communication skills, Winston will manage a new dialogue semester program for undergraduates.

Fellows and members of the institute will play an integral role in the development of its research programs, strengthening links between existing departments and schools.

The institute will also invite highly respected negotiators to teach courses and seminars.

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