What Is Dialogic Interpretation?

a dialogic moment

… and why on earth would anybody want to do it?

It seems that recently, in my travels where I meet colleagues from the USA, the topic of conversation often turns to the rise of dialogic interpretation: interpretive programming that places an emphasis on getting visitors to talk to each other about the subject at hand.

Here in Canada, dialogic interpretation isn’t even on the radar. In the US National Parks Service, every program offered now is supposed to include a dialogic component. That’s a big investment.

I’ve been equal parts intrigued and repulsed by the prospect, to be honest. Certainly, provoking thoughts and feelings among our visitors is at the heart of our profession. But seriously— the last thing any of us needs at our programs is a bunch of people sitting around beaking off about things they know nothing about. It sounds a lot like the comments section of virtually every article on the web I’ve ever read. (I mean, before I stopped reading comments sections altogether.)

So it was with pleasure that I had the opportunity to chat on the phone with a colleague who has been using the technique for some time.

Paul Ollig is Chief of Interpretation and Education on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

People that think differently are not the enemy.

From a visitor’s point of view, Paul, this sounds like the absolute last thing I’d want to do with my vacation time. Why would anybody willingly do this?

Well, they do it if they sense it’s appropriate for the resource. I’m thinking of the Tenement Museum, talking about issues of immigration and social justice. Or Ellis Island who are exploring two-hour tour through less-restored areas, and trying to incorporate a full dialogic arc through the program. When it’s done really well in an appropriate place, in an appropriate way, it can broaden understandings and open minds to new ideas. It may not be not as appropriate in, say, Yellowstone. The dialogue isn’t about the discussing facts—we’re talking about issues, and people’s personal experiences with them: gender equality, immigration, terrorism, fear. In today’s world in an increasingly polarized society, how do we sit down and get people to listen to each other? A diversity of perspectives is a good thing. People that think differently are not the enemy, and often we find that we share many of the same values if we take the time to listen to, and really hear, each other.

I guess that’s one of the biggest misperceptions about dialogic interpretation—that we’re opening debate about facts—putting people in a room and asking them, say, if climate change is real. It sounds like an interpretive nightmare. What if the group collectively decides climate change is a hoax?

That’s part of the interpreter’s job: keep them from arguing about facts. The job of the facilitator is to keep the conversation about the personal experiences that people have with this issue—how does it make them feel? We’re not talking about greenhouse gases, not debating about the role of CO2 in the atmosphere. We’re talking about how we struggle with these feelings of helplessness in the face of such a huge, global issue—approaching it from that level. And then to move beyond their own experience and perspective—how might someone else who looks at this differently feel?

Has the transition to dialogue-based interpretation been difficult for your staff?

I’d say it’s been a challenge more for older staff than for newer staff— to break them out of what they’re comfortable doing. One thing that’s been effective is recognizing that the best interpretation has always included dialogic elements-—we’re just finally putting a name to it, and articulating what it is about that type of questioning that is so effective. In the past, asking good questions has always been good technique—a lot of interpreters are already doing it.

One real growing pain is that the models that exist for a true dialogic experience, a complete dialogic arc, essentially require an audience to be committed to 90 minutes to 2 hours to complete the program. And it requires that there’s a place where it can happen, that is separate away from distraction. Many sites lack facilities conducive to this sort of in-depth experience. It also requires setting visitor expectations early on in their trip planning, so they have time in their jam-packed itineraries to include something like this.

Here in America, people are learning how to talk by listening to cable news.

How do you evaluate dialogic programs like this?

We look at how engaged the audience was with each other. Not necessarily at the intellectual connections, but rather: were people engaged in a conversation that was safe and positive and supportive, and reflective of diverse perspectives? The goals for a dialogic program have to do with the act of dialogue itself—was it successful in helping people learn to connect with each other, rather than connection with the resource. If they have a powerful positive experience talking with others in this space, it will give them a stronger connection with the resource. Here in America, people are learning how to talk by listening to cable news: talking heads screaming sound bites at each other. But in places like Manzanar, with issues of immigration, terrorism, prejudice, etc, or Kenai Fjords (climate change, endangered species, etc), if they can encounter an interpreter who can help them talk about hard issues in a way that is supportive and safe, it allows them to explore ideas beyond their own experience.

That sounds great, but for most of us, that’s not really our mission. We’re not paid to teach people to talk to each other. We’re paid to help them make connections to our resource.

Again, it depends on the site and its mission. It’s challenging to do dialogue at a nature park- but if I was chief of interpretation at Manzanar, I would definitely offer that opportunity. And it would help people understand what that place’s significance is, in the context of the site, its story and modern society.

And here’s a key: for most sites, it’s not just about having this conversation in isolation. The first step is that there has to be a shared experience—a resource-based experience, a preface to the conversation. It can be a thought-provoking talk, or an exploration of the site together. For example, one time when I tried this at Yosemite during the winter time, we offered an evening program in one of the lodges, and we watched a documentary about about the challenges of increasing visitation to Yosemite National Park. The film didn’t talk about the resource, but about the stories of the people visiting the park. It’s a wonderful documentary. So the dialogue after becomes about their own experiences and how those influence their perspectives: “How was your experience at Yosemite shaped by the large crowds? How do we preserve this park in the face of massive visitation? What is the role of park management in helping people facilitate these experiences? How many is too many?” It was a phenomenal conversation among that group. It got into challenging issues: how would visitors feel about having a quota on visitors? Would that help the visitor experience? And what if you’re one of the people not getting in? People came away with an idea of how to have these conversations.

So how do interpreters get started in this technique?

Well, I’d say there aren’t a lot of sites where a full 90-minute dialogic experience is appropriate or possible. But many interpreters can insert dialogic techniques into a standard interpretive talk. The main skill set is how to frame a question in such a way that generates a safe atmosphere for participation, one without a right or wrong answer. It must be something anyone can respond to, since the key is to focus on each person’s life experiences: those things we all possess and love to talk about. When the visitors are immersed in a resource, immersed in an experience, and if the interpreter can simply allow people to express what that experience is doing for them—how their mind and heart are working—and learn how it’s impacting other people either similarly or differently, it can be an incredibly powerful experience. The best interpreters are already doing this—it just hasn’t been framed in a way that they recognize that a given moment was a dialogic moment.

Thank you for your time and your insight, Paul. You have me wanting to explore this technique on my own, and that’s something I never thought I would do. 

One Comment

  1. Brian Forist

    The problem here may be that the process in place in the U.S. National Park Service so well and sensitively relayed through your interview with Paul is but one technique called “Facilitated Dialogue.” “Facilitated Dialogue” is a method of public communication pioneered by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and practiced in the presence of “wicked problems” or controversial social issues. This is 90 minute to 2-hour experience away from distraction that Paul refers to as “a true dialogic experience” including “a complete dialogic arc.” There are other methods, philosophies, or pedagogies that fall under the category of dialogue-based interpretation. However, only one method seems to have become the entirety of dialogue-based interpretation in the minds of many “interpreters” who tend to like shiny new things and like to be in control of the interactions taking place.

    That desire for control, I think, is partly exemplified by your own statement, “the last thing any of us needs at our programs is a bunch of people sitting around beaking off about things they know nothing about.” In some facilitated dialogue (and please note, I say some, not all…for I do believe that some facilitated dialogue is done very well and is perfectly appropriate), the “interpreter” may express interest in what the visitor has to say but ultimately wants the visitor to learn from them and to accept a certain point of view. In a panel discussion called “A Dialogue on Dialogue” at the 2017 National Association for Interpretation (NAI) conference in Spokane, three of us spoke about and took questions on dialogue. The panel included Becky Lacome from the U.S. National Park Service, Andre Copeland from the Brookfield Zoo (Illinois), and myself (Indiana University). The thing I took away from that session was that in each of our approaches to dialogue-based interpretation (and the three approaches are not the full representation of dialogue-based interpretation) the thing that was common was a new positionality of the” interpreter” in relation to the visitor. Rather than a meeting of the all-knowing and the un-knowing, the “interpreter” and visitor in a dialogic encounter are on the same plane, sharing knowledge, authority, thoughts, and perspectives. I think we might each argue that in dialogue-based interpretation, whether “facilitated dialogue,” “mission-based dialogue,” or a simple conversation between a ranger and a visitor, WHAT THE VISITOR KNOWS IS THE CENTER OF THAT INTERACTION. Visitors are not “beaking off about things they know nothing about” Rather, they are sharing very their own knowledge and expertise. In dialogue-based interpretation, what the visitor knows is important. (I offer this as my own interpretation of lesson(s) from the panel discussion and in full recognition of it being one perspective from a person with questionable credibility. After all, one of the attendees at that panel discussion noted that I should not be allowed to present at NAI meetings ever again in the future.)

    I do agree wholeheartedly that a facilitated dialogue encounter may not be the desire of some vacationers and we need to be very mindful of that. Certainly in the U.S. National Park Service we do love to impress our own point of view on visitors (and I say “we” having worked in many parks over a 40+ year career and impressed my personal and/or agency point of view all too often). Practitioners might benefit from taking this to heart and consider letting the visitor’s point of view take prominence.

    In my own research in five U.S. National Park Service units, I am struggling with a finding that what “interpreters” say and how they say it may have very little bearing on the visitor experience. It seems that people are making connections to the places, the resources, and the stories quite well on their own. Or, if the interpretive encounter had a role in those connections, it is not prominent in their recall. Visitors talk clearly about the place and what it means to them. Perhaps a new challenge for dialogue-based interpretation is to find out how we can take ourselves less seriously. Perhaps we can become somewhat less forceful about our desire to change hearts and minds, resist forcing connections. Maybe that new challenge is to see our protected places through the eyes of those experiencing them, and fade into the background while the park resource itself is foregrounded. Sometimes, that might include facilitating a “facilitated dialogue.” In other cases, it might be a brief conversation between an “interpreter” and visitor in which the visitor shares their own stories, perceptions, and questions. In yet others, it might involve us knowing when to simply say nothing…not an easily-accomplished act for many “interpreters.” In all cases it is likely a mission-based encounter, with that mission never being lost. Indications are that the place speaks with a louder and clearer voice than us “interpreters” will ever have.

    Indeed, visitors beak off quite well about things they know everything about, know through transformative personal experience, and know with heart.

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