The kind of conversation I am interested in is one which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It is always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It is an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter.
Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards; it creates new cards.
Theodore Zeldin, 1998
I love this quote from Zeldin. Ever since I heard him say this in a BBC Radio 4 programme (and subsequently in his book “Conversations”), I have been interested in learning how people can have these kinds of life-changing, self-changing, society-changing, world-changing conversations.
My quest so far has led me to believe that we have to start by moving beyond our per-functionary notions of talk; and, to re-learn how to have meaningful dialogue.
For me, dialogue is different to other communication activities such as discussion, debate, presentations (including sermons), small talk, etc. The main difference being that dialogue is a deeper, more dynamic process where people engage with each other through mutual inquiry – by which I mean jointly examining, thinking, questioning and reflecting together about issues.
Swimming against the current
We live in a time where society is increasingly disengaging from real life, into the virtual world of interactive games, second life and romanticised cyber identity, you know… the idealised versions of ourselves on social networking sites. In this context, recovering the art of genuine human interaction through difficult conversations seems counter-cultural.
Our desire for simple answers, seems to have created a reductionist version of communication where talk is reduced to rhetoric, marketing soundbites, sales pitches and political slogans. This has the effect of bifurcating people into good and evil doers. issues into right and wrong and relationships into friend or foe.
While there is nothing wrong in our desire for simplicity, we must not do so in a reductionist way, ie, by denying the complexity, mystery and wonder that is the stuff of life and human relationships.
Moving beyond small talk
If we are to create better social worlds in the future, there’s only one thing for it, we need to recover the art of having dialogical conversations.
An important part of this process is the realisation that our own assumptions and worldview determines how we interact. It is important therefore to learn how to be reflexive about how our pre-formed assumptions/bias can impact the outcome of dialogue. The more conscious of how our own thought process works, the more we are likely to communicate and collaborate better.
The purpose of dialogue is to connect in a way that meaning and understandings are jointly interpreted, reinterpreted, clarified, revised and expanded. This is how diversity can be genuinely celebrated and turned into collaboration. This is a world away from easy answers.
However, the hard work pays off, because, more important than what is produced through dialogue, is what is generated by participating in the process, that is, generative, interdependent relationships based on vulnerability and trust.