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Spirit of Dialogue – Book Review

In the “spirit of full disclosure”, I have known Aaron Wolf, the author of The Spirit of Dialogue, since 2002. I purchased an early release of his book and prepared this review without any encouragement by Wolf or Island Press who published the book. 

Wolf is a heavyweight in the conflict resolution world. Wolf’s pioneering leadership in the practice of water diplomacy yielded the prestigious Heinz Award. His work on the Arab-Israeli conflict garnered the Monito del Giardino award. His unique ability and research as a pracademic explores leveraging the spiritual dimensions embedded in many different faith traditions to transform conflict. Wolf’s work is inspirational, so much so that it “enlightened” me to leave a 20-year career as a hydrogeologist to take a sabbatical and study under him for three years.

Wolf’s newest book – The Spirit of Dialogue – encapsulates his global approach to transforming conflict developed over 25 years of practice. Wolf helps countries that share water share their spiritual connections. Wolf’s work is unique because it is transdisciplinary. It meshes rationality employed in the sciences with spirituality fundamental to faith traditions. His framework is easily applicable to other natural resources and professional fields. For example, the publisher, Island Press, apparently thought so, too, as they cross-listed The Spirit of Dialogue with their collection on business and economics.

The Spirit of Dialogue comprises eight chapters, excellent chapter notes, and topical index within 224 pages. The text is not dense academic prose littered with formal citations; it is a conversation between Wolf and the reader. If one wonders what it is like to take a course, participate in a workshop, or be “mediated” by Wolf, they will get a good feel for his mindful and practical approaches in this book.

Wolf’s academic articles, class lectures, and countless workshops offered across the world serve as the foundation for the book. An example of his academic writing is Chapter 2 – Healing the Enlightenment Rift. The Four Worlds and Four Scales described in Chapter 3 is his unique contribution to the many published frameworks for collaboration and resolving conflict. Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 provide more explanation and examples of how the Four Worlds framework is applied at different scales – from intrapersonal, interpersonal, and within small groups.

I often work side-by-side with Wolf in university courses and professional workshops. The skills building exercises found in boxes embedded within the various chapters pass the tests of use with undergraduate and graduate students, state and federal agency personnel, national and international water management agencies, and diplomats. I am frequently surprised at how well the approach works in different training settings; the book contains amusing anecdotes about a few training situations.

The reader may be confused by the abrupt ending in Chapter 8. Wolf introduces the reader to the next scale of conflict – complex systems with complexly connected stakeholders. He briefly discusses an example of complexity with the Columbia River, dams, hydropower, and the declining salmon populations where we live and work in the Pacific Northwest of the US. He freely admits The Spirit of Dialogue framework is not extensively tested at this scale.

I observed the challenges associated with his use of spirituality and conflict at this scale firsthand at an international conference on the renewal review of the Columbia River Treaty a few years back. Attendance was on the order of a few hundred, and included representatives from First Nations in Canada, Native American tribes, hydropower, power stakeholders, agriculture, non-governmental organizations covering a broad spectrum of interests, and legal, science, and engineering scholars from several regional universities. Wolf attempted to use “the spirit of dialogue” in a discussion on river governance, but the framework just did not connect with the many stakeholders. I think the challenge with Wolf’s framework is helping folks understand that spirituality and religion are not necessarily one and the same.

However, Wolf tacitly acknowledges that spirituality in complex conflictual situations and large group settings requires tactful experimentation. Clearly faith traditions are successful in this regard as many count millions as “stakeholders”. The approach to “conversion” is best summarized by Wolf where he states that we “do what we can in our own little microcatchment and pray that it scales up”.

The Spirit of Dialogue serves as a terrific addition to the scholarly debates on what is the first and best approach to dealing with conflicts through transdisciplinarity. Pracademics will glean an immediate return on their investment of $30 just with the detailed skills building exercises embedded within each chapter. I anticipate using the book as a supplemental resource in my graduate course in Environmental Conflict Resolution to invoke the “spirit of cooperation” amongst the law students as part of creating resilient agreements.



Aaron Wolf

Aaron T. Wolf is a Professor of Geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. His research and teaching focus is on the interaction between water science and water policy, particularly as related to conflict prevention and resolution. He has acted as a consultant… MORE >


Todd Jarvis

Todd Jarvis is a Certified Mediator and faculty member at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. MORE >

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