Book Review: The Spirit of Dialogue

What do ancient faith traditions and watersheds have in common? Both transcend political boundaries and international borders, focusing instead on what connects us—through the waterways that people depend on for their survival or the beliefs that teach us about the nature of life.

“What can spiritual processes of transformation offer the world of negotiations and conflict management?” (p30). This central question guided Aaron Wolf, Professor of Geography at Oregon State University, on a journey to study the various ways that religious, indigenous, and spiritual communities have resolved disputes for centuries.

In his book, “The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict,” Wolf offers tools for those who facilitate or participate in dialogue that have proven useful in his experience as a trained mediator. Serving as a consultant to the World Bank, as well as numerous governments and agencies on transboundary water issues, has given him keen insight into effective intercultural communication in diverse and high-pressure settings. He draws on the wisdom of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other belief systems, with an awareness that he can only speak to the general notions of each for the purpose of this book, without the fine-tuned nuance of a religious scholar or practitioner of every faith.

Early on in his role as a negotiator, Wolf discerned that no matter how reasonable a case one builds for cooperation in conflicts where water is concerned, there is still no guarantee that competing sides will reach an agreement without a common basis of understanding. He identifies a shift that he calls the ‘Enlightenment Rift,’ when modern Western culture separated rationality from spirituality, whereas the two have been integrated throughout history in the East. While Wolf acknowledges that many conflicts have been sparked by warring religious groups, he sees that at the core of each one is the practice of compassion. In his words, “people are at the heart of all these issues—they cause the problems and must likewise craft the solutions” (p7).

Wolf uses the “Four Worlds,” or the physical, emotional, perceptual, and spiritual realms, as a framework for how we experience everything from casual conversations to structured dialogue. He considers the environment where the interaction takes place and whether it is a comfortable setting, in addition to the body language and positioning of participants. The emotional level corresponds with the heart—our feelings that have been shaped by past experiences, cultural influences, and habitual behaviors. Our perceptual lens refers to the intellect, or the logical arguments that come to mind when presented with information that we either agree or disagree with. Finally, the spiritual realm connects us with a power greater than ourselves that may serve as a guiding force in our lives.

I appreciate Wolf’s emphasis on self-reflection at each level, understanding that we can only resolve interpersonal conflicts as we work to address our own internal issues. He offers exercises throughout the book designed to help people handle anger through mindfulness so that we are better equipped to listen compassionately and see the world through another’s eyes. In scenarios where there are firmly-held opposing viewpoints, he explains how to move beyond our positions to identify the common values that all parties share. This process requires patience, persistence, and discernment, but can ultimately lead to a more harmonious result.

Wolf’s writing is supported by dozens of real-life examples from his work on complex water issues in regions around the world. I found his writing to be relatable and practical, inviting us to dive beneath the surface of everyday encounters and engage more intentionally in our relationships, which are a fundamental part of the human experience. He concludes by acknowledging that while we cannot do the work of transformation for others, “all we can do is do what we can, and have faith that collectively it will make a difference” (p173).

If you are interested in reading “The Spirit of Dialogue,” you can order a copy from the Island Press book page and enjoy 20% off using the discount code 4SPIRIT.

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