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The Gentle Power of Dave Joseph, Dialogue Legend

A tribute to a friend, teacher, and mentor to many young dialogue practitioners—including myself. Dave passed away October 25, 2021, and was memorialized this last weekend in Rhode Island.

I was a little nervous when I walked into the 2006 gathering of The National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation. As a conservative kid from Utah, I wasn’t exactly the type of person flocking to a convening like this. I wondered, would I even belong here?

But then … I met Dave. Passing by the Public Conversations Project booth (now Essential Partners), I encountered someone who answered that question for me definitively. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, taught that truth comes through the “face of the other.” In the face of Dave (and others in the dialogue and deliberation community), the truth became very apparent. I did belong here. We all do … or at least, we all can.   

Beyond Dave’s gentle personal way alone, the specific approach he represented with Essential Partners was especially reassuring for the way it made clear space for ideological diversity—exactly the point unclear to conservatives (and others) in our cancel-happy-culture today. Over the years, the distinctive power of the Reflective Structured Dialogue approach advanced by Essential Partners has become widely appreciated as their workshops became standing-room-only affairs. (As a mindfulness teacher, I sometimes tell others that Essential Partners trainings are for dialogue what the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness is for meditation: the gold standard.)

Over the years, I kept going back to NCDD conferences and kept seeing Dave. When he came to Utah for another event, this inquisitive soul came over for dinner and met my family. We began talking about bringing the signature “Power of Dialogue” workshop to Utah. We talked about it so many times that it became an inside joke, “yeah, one day!”   

But then it happened! Several cohorts of Utahans came together in late 2017 and early 2018—participating in this in-depth dialogue training with the express aim of cultivating a “practice network” of dialogue teachers in the region, similar to supportive networks available to mindfulness teachers wanting to hone their craft. The trainings definitely made an impact. Reflecting on her experience, one participant Becky Linford said, “I think about what I learned every day and consider it an experience of a lifetime!”

“Nobody is more responsible for building the next generation of dialogue facilitators than Dave.”

Tributes from Dave’s Utah Dialogue Students. In the wake of Dave’s recent passing, I reached out to other Power of Dialogue alumni to see what kind of longer-term impact the experience had on their work—and to reflect on Dave’s specific impact on their own lives. (The responses that follow also speak to the impact of the thoughtful and endearing Meg Griffith and Alison Streit Baron who joined Dave in jointly delivering the different trainings):

  • Jodi Graham, Executive Director, Utah Humanities. “I had the honor of participating in a Power of Dialogue training with Dave in 2017. This training was instrumental in shaping the Community Conversations programming Utah Humanities offers throughout the state. Hundreds of people have gathered in person and virtually to find greater understanding and respect. We have held conversations on topics ranging from Immigration to the Opioid Crisis, and all are grounded in Dave’s philosophy of respectful dialogue. His legacy lives on in every Community Conversation.”
  • Becca Kearl, Director of Programming, Living Room Conversations. “I clearly remember Dave sitting in the middle of our circle demonstrating the power of questions. He posed a problem he was trying to work out and we were each to think of questions to help him get to the root of the issue rather than offer suggestions or ask clarifying questions. It was a deeply impactful exercise that I have used in my own faith community, with my children and spouse, and in my work crafting questions to enable dialogue. Dave brought warmth, authenticity, and humor to this critical work and I was amazed at the breadth of his work across the globe. I am grateful our paths intersected and can say with absolute sincerity that he changed me. I am privileged to create resources and foster dialogue across the country and carry the lessons learned from him with me in my daily work. Prayers and condolences to those who loved him best and feel the sting of grief right now.”
  • Pamela Gee, Opera By Children Director, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre.  “Dave had a firm grasp on bringing people together and a clear way to encourage us to understand human nature in a way to overcome differences. We have utilized his techniques to ensure we are able to balance many of the perspectives of the community in teaching and educating the diverse people we serve.”
  • Shelly Sawyer Jenson, Master Herbalist. “I am honored to have been trained in dialogue by Dave Joseph, but he taught me far more than the art of facilitating dialogue. He taught me how to listen, how to learn, how to sit patiently with discomfort, and how to care. I can’t imagine a man more gifted in not only teaching dialogue but in demonstrating humanity with grace.”
  • Emily Allen, Master Mother. “I have found as I get older that I appreciate anyone who comes into my life and leaves me with something new and wonderful.  Dave is someone who introduced me to a new way of conversing with others and opening up my heart in a thoughtful way. He helped me become more willing to share and discuss hard things. When I bring what Dave brought to the table in any relationship, it softens everything. He hit at the core of knowing humanity. I mean truly knowing humanity and realizing that life is complex and we see only a few pieces to the puzzle of someone else’s life. Getting to know, love, and understand others puts more pieces together so we can begin to see them a little clearer which makes a whole lot of room for love and kindness to fill in the missing pieces. That connection in a relationship gets filled with richness pretty darn quick. God undoubtedly smiles for all that Dave gave to us.”
  • Jay Griffith. “Dave was first and foremost a warm and beautiful human. The creases on his face bespoke a thoughtfulness and care come from much tilling the soil of understanding and compassion among enemies. His personal stories of patient prepping illustrated the importance of learning and appreciating where people come by their strongly held positions. His method of intent listening and then sitting for a few moments to really consider and reflect what another said, still instructs and benefits me. Such lessons as he demonstrated and taught continue to seed and grow a greater capacity for reconciliation for me and many others as we work to create a less divisive world. I mourn his passing.”   
  • Andrea Smardon, journalist and podcast producer. “Dave Joseph helped me take my interest in deep listening and become a leader. When I met him, I was trying to figure out how to use my voiceto use the tools of audio journalism to help people navigate fractured times and take courageous steps toward connection. Shortly after I attended a training with Dave, I developed a podcast about how to connect in a time of division. It was called Next Door Strangers, and I produced it in partnership with public radio station KUER. NPR selected an episode for national promotion on their app and it reached more than 200,000 listeners. The podcast also got more people involved in the kind of dialogues that Dave champions by partnering with Living Room Conversations. I know that Davein his devotion to this workhas planted many seeds that are still developing.”
  • Andrew Evans. “Dave really made me think. His example of patience and non-judgment towards others kept my own beliefs in check. Just recently I was able to use skills I learned from him in managing some tense workplace issues. Whether it was as a mediator, counseling soldiers, or listening to a friend, Dave’s example will always be in my mind and in my heart.”
  • Ashtora. “This sad news of Dave’s passing has reached me. The gifts of dialogue that Dave brought to me and many others have forever changed the way I think and the way I speak. Because of Dave Joseph, my goal is always now, to find ‘the heart of the matter.’ I am just very fortunate in doors continuing to open for advocating and speaking out for social justice and protection of those marginalized by our government, legal, religious and social systems. The work of Essential Partners is pivotal to every conversation in my life.” 

This is only a subset of beneficiaries of the training in Utah—which, of course, is only one place impacted by his influence and teaching. As John Sarrouf, Co-Executive Director at Essential Partners, said at the memorial “Nobody is more responsible for building the next generation of dialogue facilitators than Dave”—suggesting that his “students’ students’ students” can now speak of his impact.  

The global impact of one determined peacemaker. After working for two decades in mental health and addictions programs, Dave spent the last 25 years of his life peacebuilding around the world. In his work with Essential Partners, he fostered interfaith dialogue in Nigeria and led projects in post-civil war healing in Liberia and post-genocide healing in Burundi. His legacy includes groups like the “National Ex-combatants Peacebuilding Initiative” and Mediators Beyond Borders, of which he was a founding member and served as its Board Chair for many years. As one speaker at his memorial said, “You only have to listen to the people he worked with—to know how much light he brought into dark places.”

Dave did plenty of domestic peacemaking work on home soil as well, supporting a wide spectrum of dialogues across difficult questions, from abortion to immigration. He also founded the Center for Mediation & Collaboration in Rhode Island (CMCRI). Impact across the nation and around the world is obviously something to celebrate and honor. But I was especially touched at the memorial to see something not exactly common in people who make such a difference in the larger world—where those making a sizable impact in the larger world often leave broken families and unhappy home lives in their wake. 

I knew better from Dave, who spoke of Stella, Pierce, and his other grandchildren so frequently that I felt like I knew them. The tender words of his closest family members and children left the biggest impression on me. Both sons spoke about celebrating the Patriots’ improbable come-from-behind win going to the Super Bowl together. And one of his sons spoke of how his father had taught him the meaning of life, “centered on how one chooses to spend one’s limited time on the planet”—prioritizing “laughter, sharing wisdom, living with others, and living for the good of others.” Another son mentioned learning from his dad that “Greatness is a measure of impact, not of value.”

His sweetheart Andrea was at his side till the end, sending lovely updates to his many friends over the difficult months. As his obituary notes, “He and Andrea held hands until the end.”

Remarking that Dave “lived his life hoping to help heal a broken world,” Andrea added at his memorial that his “chief regrets” were not being able to spend “more time with his grandchildren and not more time with his work.” 

Those at the receiving end of his attention were changed by it. Dave’s sister described how he “always thought deeply and listened deeply … listened really, really deeply”— commenting on how he “always helped me feel seen, heard, valued and respected.” John Sarrouf spoke of the striking “language” of his distinctive eyebrows when in conversation—reflecting “how closely he listened and considered what you had to share.”

I was struck by how well Dave lived out two teachings he loved, both mentioned at the memorial service:  “All real living is meeting” (Buber), “I will destroy my enemies by converting them to my friends” (Maimonides).

It was not just family members, of course, that benefited from these gifts. I was touched by the stories of how famous he was at the climbing gym he frequented. “Not only because he was twice or three times older than other climbers—and not because he could climb the best routes … but because he invested so much of his time at the climbing gym in other people. He was not rushed, and asked people how their day was, getting to know the story of people’s lives.”

Three other qualities stood out from those reflecting on his life:   

  • Patience. John Sarrouf described how Dave would “stand in the middle of people in the deepest of conflicts” and “pause in the most incredible, thoughtful, intentional way.” Dave was described as “fiercely patient”—citing a proverb he often referenced in his teaching: “patience is the medicine for everything in the world.”
  • Humility. In reflecting on Dave’s writing, John noted that He “never spoke about himself and his own wisdom and accomplishment—instead always focusing on someone else he helped to support.” He added, “He was never the hero of his own stories. And was far more likely to tell you his failure and mistakes.” His sons likewise spoke of how teaching from their father “rarely came directly,” and instead through “asking questions.”  They both affirmed, “his wisdom was in helping others discover the wisdom for themselves.”
  • Laughter. I absolutely loved Dave’s laugh (see the video below, to see why). One of Dave’s sons described the “pure life and love when my dad laughed”—saying, “he laughed easily, wonderfully.” The story was told how an hour after brain surgery—head wrapped in gauze—he asked his family after waking up, “what do you think of my new look?” When one person questioned the value of dialogue at a workshop, Dave quipped, “Yes, this work of dialogue is only really useful for those who have to deal with other people.”

I didn’t know Dave at the depth of others who worked closely with him and loved him best. But as I reflect on the cumulative impact of my interactions with him over the years, I get emotional.

In hopes of preserving some of his wisdom for others to relish, I reached out to propose an interview four years ago. He agreed and we found time in between Power of Dialogue events in Utah one evening in February 2018 in his hotel room (my excuse for some random background noises here and there!) 

I focused my questions on some of the lessons that had most impacted me and his reflections on his work over the years as a whole. I present in the video below all of his answers, along with a few instances of back-and-forth where I was able to capture his unforgettable laugh. Hoping you enjoy it!

I found this comment an especially powerful articulation of one challenge we will continue to face in the years ahead:    

In times of polarization, what happens is the zealots get empowered—the voices that get heard are the most extreme. It’s set up to create something we consume—that sells commercial products. People who are more complex and nuanced (which describes most Americans) aren’t going to be the ones invited on the shows because they’re not as entertaining. … Conflict entrepreneurs take advantage of this because it sells and it works for them. 

Then, Dave pivoted to look forward with some hope, saying “We’re challenged to be our better selves, to be the kind of people who help to heal a broken country, a country that has enormous potential if we can only make it so.”

Dave would “stand in the middle of people in the deepest of conflicts” and “pause in the most incredible, thoughtful, intentional way.”

Near the end of the interview, Dave said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to have passed along some important values and beliefs that have motivated me to do what I’ve done. I hope I’ve been successful in communicating some of those values to others who can do this work when I’m no longer doing it.” He was encouraged “to think that when I’m no longer doing this in 5 or 10 years, that there will be people who will be carrying on.”

It’s true that Dave’s legacy will “live on” in hearts and minds, and livesyoung and oldall around the world. But that’s not all that will live on. I write this tribute as both a Latter-day Saint, and as someone who has lost my mother, brother and many other dear ones in my life. Based on some sacred experiences confirming to me that my loved ones have not ‘ceased to exist,’ I quote the great movie Gladiator to simply say: “I will see you again … but not yet. Not yet.” 

 We believe the “same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” I rejoice in knowing the beauty of friendship and family does not just suddenly evaporate after death. I feel like Joseph Smith, who once said, “If I have no expectation of seeing my father, mother, brothers, sisters, and friends again, my heart would burst in a moment, and I should go down to my grave. The expectation of seeing my friends in the morning of the resurrection cheers my soul and makes me bear up against the evils of life.” 

These are tough times in our country, and the worldand by many indicators, they could get even tougher. The truths and teachings that guided Dave’s life have never been more important, urgent, and needed. As we turn our faces to the future, may we be cheered by knowing of the goodness, kindness, and convictions of those who came before. And no matter what we have to navigate in the days ahead, let’s hold onto the ideals that guided their livesand live to make them proud.    

Thank you, Dave.  I love you. All who knew you will miss you sorely! 

About the author

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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