The Lost Art of Dialogue

I’m afraid my friends that we’ve gotten lost. Media in general and social media in particular is guiding us down the path of chemical dependance on the 140 character sound byte.

No wait, we don’t even need that anymore, we just click the “like” button…and then ask for a “don’t like” button. And don’t even get me started on texting (which doesn’t show up in spell check by the way). If we’re not careful we’ll soon frgt hw 2 uu vwls prprly.

How is it that with more access to more information than any three generations have had before now we seem to be less and less inclined toward discussion while at the same time more and more inclined to dismissive dogmatic certainties?  How is it that “our guy’s” statistics are surprisingly accurate while “those guy’s” statistics are always a lying mockery of the truth? Perhaps here we HAVE been most affected by the media. Ever notice how the Storm Troopers can’t seem to hit a thing with their blasters but Han Solo has a 75% hit rate?

In the interest of trying to halt this slide down the slippery slope into mindless sarcastic bashing allow me a few moments to bring to your attention three words:

1. Debate:
Some of the definitions include: To dispute or disagree about, To engage in argument or discussion, Argument or Controversy.

You see a debate is about one side trying to win. You win a debate by proving your point right, or more right, and the other side’s point wrong. A debate typically has a winner and a loser.

2. Diatribe:
Definition: a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism

Because a debate is in effect a contest with a winner and a loser they often disintegrate in a series of diatribes aimed at taking out the opponent emotionally as well as intellectually.  Not a bad tactic if you’re looking to win and particularly good if you want the other fellow to lose.

3. Dialogue:
Definition: an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.

Do you see the subtle difference here? In a debate you have one winner and one loser. In a dialogue the intent is to have no losers and all winners. The intent of dialogue is to bring about resolution to conflict that is mutually beneficial.

It’s no surprise we’ve landed here really, having forgotten what we once knew about dialogue. Ours is a capitalistic society. Capitalism thrives on competition. We’re taught to compete from the moment we play our first game of grade school kickball. We’ve become accustomed to, perhaps even programmed into, choosing sides.

But as Americans we’re all on the same side. Shoot, as humans we’re all on the same side. So shouldn’t we be looking to dialogue and resolve rather than debate and win?

Most debates are founded on three premises: declare, prove, debunk. Each side declares what they believe to be true, seeks to prove it, and seeks to debunk their opponent.

IF we are to re-discover the lost art of dialogue I think we need to learn again to begin from a different set of premises:

Dialogue starts with an agreement as to what it is we’re trying to solve or resolve. (Which I suppose literally could be said to mean “solve again”.) This is more difficult than it seems on the surface.

Take a nice controversial example like abortion. Tons of debate there yes? But it seems to me one side is arguing about rights while the other is arguing about life. Yes, I know the life guys are arguing about rights too, just for different folks.

But, what if the discussion started with trying to agree on what problem it is that abortion solves. Might different alternatives present themselves? Rather than argue we should allow it versus we should not what if the dialogue were about trying to determine if it is the best solution to a defined problem?

Agreement means we’re truly in agreement. We’re actually looking to come up with a mutually beneficial solution to the problem or issue. We’re not just agreeing on the surface for the sake of argument but willing to fight for the agreement rather than for our point to be won.

Yes, I know we were all taught never to assume. In this case though the assumption is that your counterpart in the dialogue has points, information, statistics, and suggestions that are equally as valid as yours. Assuming this serves to reinforce the agreement.

Also, the better you are at assuming brilliance (a phrase borrowed from an old friend) on the part of the other party the more likely you’ll be to listen to what they have to say, not in order to debunk it, but in order to find where you can reach agreement.

Dialogue easily slips into debate. When it does go back to the agreement, check your assumptions to see if they are still active as they should be, and persevere.

I used to work for a particularly ornery Brit. One of my favorites bosses of all time truth be told. Chris and I would sometimes get into HUGE shouting matches cross the table to the degree where once or twice people actually poked a head in the door and asked if everything was ok. At which point we laughed and said “Yes, we’re fine. We’re going to lunch in five minutes would you like to join us?”

Ours was a dialogue. A heated one to be sure. But we had agreement as to what we were trying to solve. We had deep mutual respect for one anothers brilliance and perspective, and we persevered. If only we as a country could figure out how to have less debate and more dialogue…who knows where we might once again go.

Where do you find it most difficult to have dialogue rather than debate? Why do you think that is so?

2 responses to “The Lost Art of Dialogue

  1. Curtis,
    Thanks for an important reminder about the dire need we have for more dialogue. Nice post.
    Regards, Don

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