The Potential of Dialogue

Meaningful dialogue is an elusive thing in our communities. Having a respectful conversation with someone about something on which we do not agree isn’t common. Yelling opinions overtop of someone else or building a newsfeed that reinforces your worldview are common outcomes of a world with fewer and fewer great conversations. There is so much potential in dialogue, so over the next five weeks our team is going to focus on why conversations are important and how to have great ones. We’re going to start with exploring why conflict is a good thing. Enjoy!

Why conflict is a good thing

Winston Churchill said that “if two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” Communities grow stronger through conflict and compromise. Think of your best relationships and the most dynamic and productive teams in your organization. Chances are that being comfortable with disagreements and conflict is part of what makes everything work so well. “If a team always agreed on everything, they’d be satisfied with the first answer to the problem instead of working, arguing and debating to figure out the best answer,” says Fast Company’s Paul Glover. I learned about this when I posted an article about gun control on my Facebook following one of the many horrific shootings that took place in the US.

People didn’t agree on everything, but there was this willingness to try and see each other’s perspective and find some sort of ultimate truth in the conversation. While stances on the issue didn’t change, peoples’ perspectives may have shifted. That’s progress.

Silos suck

Because so many of us are conflict-averse we organize our social channels – and even our communities – into silos and echo chambers that reinforce our worldview. We befriend people who share our philosophies, read content that reflects our values, and eat lunch with colleagues with whom we work every day. Bill Bishop argues that “…we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.” When we remove debate and simply select what we want to hear we replace truth with Stephen Colbert’s 2005 word of the year, “truthiness” and everyone just yells whatever they want from their silos.

Healthy communities use dialogue to introduce folks with differing opinions and needs to each other with the intention of achieving a shared understanding of the issues and, ideally, a way forward together. Achieving such a thing does not happen easily, but the results are ultimately more inclusive because more voices and perspectives are incorporated into the solution. Bishop’s research supports such a perspective:

“It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re a frat boy, a French high school student, a petty criminal or a federal appeals court judge,” Bishop writes. “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”

For example, a colleague of mine sees her role as a Branch Manager at Vancity as one that convenes people with the goal of sharing information and resources – some of the folks in her neighbourhood are working towards the same thing (and spending money to do it) independently, but if they talked about their common interests and worked together they would same money and reach more stakeholders. So she convenes everyone to talk through – difficultly – their work in an effort to find alignments and opportunities for collaboration.

We are in this together

The potential of the opportunities for conflict-laden dialogue listed above are enormous. Imagine if both stakeholders change their perspective of each other on the real estate development and the project gets better because of it? Imagine if the three organizations all doing the same thing take time to understand each other and then share resources?

Whether at work or at home, embracing conflict – or at least being comfortable with it – results in teams that are more likely to thrive and enhances community wellbeing, too.

Something you can try

Over the next week, engage in respectful debate or conflict with friends or colleagues and see what happens. An easy thing to try is asking someone to stop looking at their phone during a meeting or conversation (of course this means that you shouldn’t do such a thing either!).

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