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 over someone else or building a newsfeed that reinforces your worldview are common in a world with fewer and fewer great conversations. There is so much potential in dialogue, which is why this blog is exploring what makes for great conversations over the next few weeks – we started with a look at why conflict is a good thing. This week we’re focusing on how to suspend judgment so that you can live in the moment and be open to new ideas. Enjoy!

How to suspend judgment

Human beings bring ourselves – opinions, ideas, biases, education, culture, socio-economic status, religion – to every conversation. For great, two-way conversations we need to be able to suspend our judgment of someone else’s perspective in order to fully participate in dialogue. William Isaacs, founder of the Dialogue Project at MIT, uses the following example to demonstrate how we can suspend our point of view:

“That is not the way I see it. My view is … Here is what has led me to see things this way. What has led you to see things differently?”

This is not an easy thing to pull off. And suspending judgment requires to key abilities: the ability to be present and the ability to learn.

Always be present

The above line from Isaacs is from a great book called Presence. What I’m learning from it is that being present begins with cultivating the ability to be more aware of our thoughts. Understanding what we’re thinking and where it’s coming from is critical if we’re ever going to let go of such thoughts, even if it’s only for a moment, and genuinely be open to another way of seeing the world. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to become more present in every moment.

Notable quiet person Susan Cain argues that there is a cultural bias towards fast-moving, fast-talking extroverts in our communities. As a fast-talking extrovert, I agree and admit to having such a bias myself. A colleague of mine is quiet, executes work along a longer timeline than most folks, and her work is top notch. But it wasn’t until I let go of my bias for chatter and speed and became fully present during our one-on-one meetings that I was able to understand her perspective and see the value in how she worked.

Always be learning

On a recent episode of The Nerdist podcast, Celebrity Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson argues that too many adults lose their childlike sense of wonder and our interest in learning when we finish formal education, like university. Tyson quips that “you have to learn to be close-minded” because human beings are natural learners! But with work, family, sports, video games, and other commitments we actually un-learn our natural inclination to learn, which makes us worse at having conversations with folks who see the world differently.

Learning happens everywhere. When we approach any experience, like a conversation, as an opportunity to learn something then we enhance our likelihood of sharing an understanding with another person, increasing our chances of success in life, and improving our well-being, too. People with a strong ability to learn are not only great at dialogue, but they are also going to be relevant community leaders well into the future.

I recently wrote about conflict as a tool for community building, so over the last few days I made an effort to get in conflict – pleasant and agreeable conflict – with folks in person and online. I even went down the rabbit hole of inquiring about the motivations of a Donald Trump supporter on Facebook. Much was learned from the experience and it helped that I was focused more on genuinely understanding someone else’s perspective and learning from it than having my opinion heard (even though it was really, really hard).

Something to try

Take a “sensing journey” or an “empathy walk” – simply put, experience the world from someone else’s perspective. Be present in the moment and opening your mind to learning from the experience. When you strive to understand a different perspective or worldview it will help to let go of the judgments that we bring to every conversation.

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