Generative Dialogue

Generativity is a mature state of being and psychosocial adjustment.[1] It arises after basic needs for self-development and self-expression have been satisfied. It’s marked by a turning of our attention toward others and to goods that transcend self-interest. By using this word to characterize dialogue I intend to signify a kind of interaction that requires social-emotional maturity and produces distinctive developmental effects. 

The idea is to recognize the dialectical pulls that we may feel toward either extreme and arrive at a more adaptive position that leans toward virtue.

The idea is to recognize the dialectical pulls that we may feel toward either extreme and arrive at a more adaptive position that leans toward virtue.

Generativity and Dialogue

The table above illustrates how the healthy, prosocial, and adaptive qualities of a generativity contrast with an opposite orientation, stagnation. The latter describes the characteristics of one whose adult development has been arrested due to unresolved issues from childhood, adolescence, or early adult experience. Associated with a generative orientation is an overarching ethic of care.[2]  

Dialogue represents a distinctively human medium for generating understanding. The father of modern hermeneutic philosophy, Hans-Georg Gadamer, characterized dialogue as consisting of four elements:  

  1. Dialogue focuses on a “subject matter” for the purpose of arriving at a mutual understanding of it. It’s not a debate or winning over the other party.

  2. Dialogue requires that each person engage with good-will to hear something anew and form a bond of solidarity with the other for this purpose.

  3. Dialogue requires the willingness to offer reasons for one’s view of the matter. We must be open to the other and willing to explain ourselves to the other.

  4. Dialogue requires an acknowledgement that one “knows one does not know.” We immerse ourselves in a humble and playful search for understanding.

Gadamer[3] put it this way: “To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were” (379).  So, there is a me and you, a subject that we’re focused on, and a new and important understanding that emerges.

Are You Ready for Dialogue?

If you are regularly finding yourselves stuck at some point in conversation, and especially if you’re stuck in opposing positions, dialogue may be something you could benefit from. It deepens understanding, but also relationships. It breeds skilled practices of suspending judgment, letting go of needs to be right or to win. It hones capacities for listening and patience.

If you identify opportunities to use generative dialogue, you might want to review the characteristics in the table above. As you do this, you might ask “Which of these characteristics feel most challenging for me to realize in practice?” Acceptance of where currently you are in your readiness for dialogue will help you notice which dialogical skills and practices you wish to be more mindful of cultivating..

Finally, don’t forget why we call it generative dialogue. It’s not about self-interest alone. In rising to this level of maturity there is personal growth and satisfaction for both parties. There is also the reward of striving to achieve a worthy goal. It’s about cultivating an ethic of care, orienting yourself toward greater purposes and goods. So start where you are and enjoy the experience!  


[1] The concept of generativity was first used to characterize a mature state of adult development in the lifespan theory of Erik Erikson. See Childhood and Society (1950) by Erik Erikson. Published by W.W. Norton & Company.

[2] See “An Ethical Analysis of Erikson’s Concept of Generativity” by Don Browning in The Generative Society (2004), edited by Ed de St. Aubin, Dan McAdams, and Tae-Chang Kim. Published by American Psychological Association.

[3] From Truth and Method (second edition, 2004) by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Published by Bloomsbury Academic.