A Means to Better Ends
In her blog, Christina Ling tells about Conversation Dinners. “Theodore Zeldin is an Oxford scholar and thinker who created The Oxford Muse Foundation. … The Muse’s aim is to rethink the ways in which we communicate with and understand one another. It responds to the superficiality of much social discourse by organizing Conversation Dinners that transcend traditional conversation norms.
“It is not so much a simple conversation as a meeting of minds. … It is to fully engage yourself in a respectful, meaningful conversation, to understand another person in a new way.”
As a participant in one of these Conversation Dinners, Ling found that when preconceptions, trifling small talk, and the attempts to impress are stripped down to who we really are, there is openness to transformation. “Authentic conversation unites us,” concludes Ling.
“When we lower our façades and open our minds to the perspectives of others, we allow ourselves to connect and work together on a level we never have before.”
Would you want to participate in the kind of conversation dinner Ling describes? Why or why not?
In college, a small group of seniors interested in political science hadn’t had time to take the courses so we asked a professor if he would meet with us to help us learn what we could about political science. He said “yes” and found other professors interested in joining us in what turned out to be a very open dialog.
There were no final authorities, no grades, and no dumb questions. We were to explore together. We found insights, even answers to questions that we might not have found in the classroom. I became a convert to dialog.
Sustainable learning is a discovery process. What we read, what teachers tell us, and what we gain from available research are building blocks to learning. In that political science experience, because all of us, even the professors, listened to each other with open minds – we gained insights about that subject that stretched our thinking. Some of those insights influenced the way that some of us look at politics as we moved on in our respective careers.
I define dialog as: An exchange between people and groups in which meaning is shared and change occurs with each party of the dialog.
Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” offers a contemporary perspective about empathy and dialog.
In her research, she found that “when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other.”
Turkle asks, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”
A 15-year-old she interviewed at a summer camp talked about her reaction when she went out to dinner with her father and he took out his phone to add ‘facts’ to their conversation. “Daddy,” she said, “stop Googling. I want to talk to you.’”
Turkle tells about the study of psychologist, Yalda T. Uhls, who was the lead author on a study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. “After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group.
“In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do,” said this researcher.
My dictionary uses these words to define audacious: bold, daring, fearless, courageous, heroic, plucky, gutsy and venturesome. For me to claim that dialog is a means to better ends is audacious. But I make that claim.
So, what are some of the better ends? Transformational dialog is a way to:
- Stretch beyond cellphone and texting communication
- Stretch our levels of consciousness
- Build sustainable relationships
- Build koinonia, a sense of community
- Build bridges for conflict resolution
- Stimulate a larger intelligence with which to deal with heavy societal issues
- Surface glimpses of God
- Experience a worldview that reflects ultimate peace
Have you ever heard statements like these?
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
You don’t know what you are talking about.
Surely it is obvious to you that this is the right way.
My authority says that you are missing the mark.
These are dialog killers. When you get statements like these, it will be challenging to move into dialog. If I am trying to persuade you to see something my way, I am not in dialog. If listening to you, I am thinking of ways to pick apart what you say, I am not in dialog. We can choose to tell, sell, argue, or debate, or we can choose, when possible, to communicate in dialog.
So, what do we mean by transformational dialog?
It is not the same as conversation. It is not a form of debate. It is a physiological, psychological, and theological thing.
When you’re in a dialog environment, people understand what you mean – you understand what they mean. There is more exploration than argument – more effort to discover than to convince. Each person has a piece of the answer, and each adds value to the discovery.
In dialog, we communicate with each other in transformational conversation. Dialog shifts us from what Martin Buber called “I-It” relationships, in which we treat one another as objects, toward “I-Thou” relationships, in which we treat one another as persons.[i]
The term dialog stems from the Greek διάλογος. Its roots are διά (dia: through) and λόγος (logos: speech, reason). When meaning flows through our communication we are in dialog. We don’t have to agree with each other. If I understand you, even when I disagree with my understanding of you, I can respect you and even be open to something new that can stretch me.
Have you tried to convey something important to someone, and you couldn’t come up with quite the right words – and the other person offered words that conveyed exactly what you meant? When that happens, you are on the way to real dialog.