“Dialogue” is reportedly the word most used by Pope Francis in his recent address to the Congress of the United States. The Free Dictionary defines dialogue as “An exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially with a view to reaching an amicable agreement.”

In the image of these spheres—diverse in size, tonality and texture—I can imagine the exchange of electrochemical information that resulted in harmonious interaction within this dynamic system where drops of oil sought to maintain their integrity within a vessel of water.

The order and pattern of the spheres provide evidence that, although the water and oil molecules are diametrically opposed to one another, they continuously reached an “amicable agreement” so that the whole system works—physically and aesthetically. It’s a picture of individuals engaging each other in the context of a common purpose. Their integrity (read dignity) is maintained, and from our point of view the system displays stability and organization. The molecules of oil didn’t ask to be deposited in the vessel of water, but once there the interaction and exchange of information within the system was more a dance than a battle. Indeed, true dialogue is a sort of discursive dance.

And it’s unique. It involves discussion, but a discussion per se seeks to simply share and sort things out. The emphasis is on back-and-forth inquiry and analysis where there may be many points of view. Discussions can be amicable or heated. Either way, participants generally aim to win an argument, score points or have their opinion prevail. Debate is another kind of discourse. There the individuals do battle with one another by offering proofs and counter arguments so their point of view will prevail. The context is purposefully polarized so there is a winner and a loser. Having been on a college debate team I can attest to the occasional glory of winning and the frequent agony of defeat.

Dialogue, on the other hand, is a process that flows from a base of commonalities and allows conflicting views to court each other so a fuller perspective can emerge from spirited but respectful interaction. It occurs when the participants follow their hearts and souls, when they are allowed to have their full say, are heard and taken seriously—within an atmosphere of trust and discovery—where there is open mindedness, respect and a mutual desire for achieving the common goal. Simply put, dialogue is how we think things through together so we can individually learn and make sound judgements on behalf of a whole system.

Whether in a small informal group or a large formal setting, the practice of dialogue is not easy. First, it requires a clear and commonly held picture of the whole system and what it needs in order to grow and develop. With the goals agreed upon, points of agreement need to be identified before differences in perspectives and approach are specified and argued. Throughout, broader truths, those relating to the well-being and development of the whole system, must be allowed to emerge. According to Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, the goal of dialogue is to allow us “To comprehend each other well enough so that common goals and understanding is possible.” True dialogue builds and maintains good relations among the participants as it builds consensus among them regarding what’s best for the whole system.

Psychologists observe that we tend to think we know what’s best for ourselves and the larger systems within which we participate. We want to think we’re right. And because we think we know what’s best, there’s a strong tendency to champion our perspectives and methods. But that tendency can be tempered in situations of interpersonal communication by structuring important interactions as a formal dialogue, making sure that everyone knows the Multicultural Ground Rules For Dialogue before hand.

I have observed evidence of dialogue happening in families, special interest groups, religious organizations, universities, corporations and non-profit organizations. That we humans have evolved the capacity to rationally and respectfully think through and transcend our differences while safeguarding our relationships and seeking the common good is reason to hope.

Dialogue is the art of thinking together. It involves listening and thinking beyond my position for something that goes beyond you and me.

William Isaacs

None of us knows the truth, but together we can come closer to it.


Intelligence requires that you don’t defend an assumption. The proper structure of an assumption or of an opinion is that it is open to evidence that it may not be right.

David Bohm

About This Image

Title / File #: Sphere CDC882

I positioned a 4×5 camera over a light table, filled a tall one-quart photographic graduate with filtered water and set it on the table. Using an eyedropper, I deposited drops of vegetable oil on the surface to form a two-inch “cell.” After some experimentation with lighting, I cut a hole in a sheet of black paper so it was a little larger than the circumference of the graduate and set it on the light table with the graduate in the middle. Immediately, this created the contrast between the bright center and dark bands.

To gain control over the composition and dust on the surface of the water, I substituted an electronic flash for the incandescent bulbs in the light box. Still there was dust, and it was visible on the surface because that was the point of critical focus. The solution was to work quickly, to cover the graduate with a piece of clear glass between exposures. With the cable release in hand and the shutter cocked, I stirred the water and watched the interaction. When the moment was right I removed the glass, made the exposure and quickly covered the graduate to prepare for the next shot. The more vigorously I stirred the water the more the bigger cells divided into smaller ones.

A full description of this process and more of the spherical images can be found in LensWork Magazine #39 February-March, 2002. For readers who approach photography as a medium of aesthetic expression, I highly recommend LensWork Magazine and it’s many initiatives. I consider it to be the Rolls Royce of photography magazines.


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