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Can we talk?

The fast-fading art of constructive conversation

“Discussion is impossible with someone who claims not to seek the truth, but
already to possess it.”
 —Romain Rolland

Oklahoma Senator James Lankford recently challenged Americans to engage one another across racial lines. His modest proposal calls for families to invite others from different racial backgrounds to their homes for a meal.

Senator Lankford’s call rings both timely and true. We spend too much time talking at one another instead of with one another—generally, not just with respect to matters of race. Shrill, tendentious rhetoric inflames rather than enlightens. Lankford’s “shared sustenance” suggestion implies that context matters when it comes to quality conversation. So, too, does content.

What the world needs now is dialogue on a host of topics, some of them existential, around which division and divisiveness swirl. The prerequisite to meaningful dialogue—openness to the prospect (and risk) of being changed by the process—remains central to addressing the seemingly intractable problems our communities, states, and nations face. Think globally; act locally.

For Americans, dialogue serves as the linchpin of a robust democracy. Through it, we animate and articulate that which matters to us while also affording others the courtesy of listening to what matters to them.

America thrives when a marketplace of ideas exists such that we may weigh and winnow competing views and ideologies. Indeed, the marketplace of ideas metaphor often surfaces in the context of our cherished First Amendment rights. Conversation allows ideas to surface and percolate in the first instance.

How might we advance the conversation on matters critical to our shared community—our shared world—with a view toward collaboration and informed, empathetic problem-solving? How might we craft courageous conversations that engage and illuminate? By understanding the rudiments of dialogue.   

Dialogue refers to the process through which people share their beliefs, values, meanings, hopes, and fears. Ideally, they do so openly, honestly, and authentically.

Dialogue is constructive conversation in search of mutual understanding. It is a joint process among co-equal, cooperating participants—not a zero-sum game.

Cultivating physical and psychological dynamics can enhance its productivity. For example, dialogue participants can improve the likelihood of fruitful engagement when they:

  • Engage a skilled facilitator to shepherd the conversation (where appropriate)
  • Choose a location with solid acoustics so all participants may be heard
  • Sit (or, where appropriate, stand) in a circle, avoiding hierarchy of physical position and encouraging direct communication
  • Share generously (often through storytelling), listen attentively, and think critically
  • Make “I” statements (i.e., speak about their individual truths borne of personal experience)
  • Eschew derogatory attributions, attacks, and defensiveness
  • Refrain from making assumptions about the motives or character of others
  • Pose curiosity-driven, sincere questions

The human tendency toward confirmation bias inhibits dialogue. People look, consciously or otherwise, for information that confirms their preconceived worldviews. Being aware of that bias and taking steps to disable it are critical elements in preparation for dialogue. Much meaningful conversation necessarily entails cognitive dissonance and a willingness to be in an awkward mental space.   

While not a panacea, dialogue deepens and widens understanding through inquiry and reflection. It teaches us about ourselves and those with whom we are involved. Properly done, dialogue promotes mutual respect, encourages awareness of and appreciation for differences, and stimulates critical thinking about diversity and inclusion.

While it doesn’t necessarily render resolutions, it does build relationships. To do so, it demands a safe environment, though not necessarily a comfortable one. Threats to participants’ security, identity, and dignity must be eliminated.

At its core, dialogue rests upon reciprocal, mutually-accepted rights and responsibilities involving respect and trust: respect for the persons with whom we are in conversation; trust for the process as a means toward positive outcomes.

Those engaged in dialogue hold the right to express their beliefs, ideas, and feelings; define themselves without being labeled; ask questions that help them understand what’s being communicated; maintain their positions; and ask others to hold what they say in confidence.

Each person engaged in conversation bears the responsibility to listen patiently and non-judgmentally; avoid making untested assumptions; answer questions in ways that help others understand; grant basic human respect to others, especially in times of conflict or disagreement; and evaluate personal values and attitudes.

These rights and responsibilities are steeped in notions of civility, another concept seemingly on the wane. Simply put, civility means affirming the humanity of other people.

So, can we talk?

If we are to interact with one another in ways that affirm our shared humanity, address our common needs, and advance our mutual well-being, we arguably have no choice. Talking things out will help us navigate the complex issues that characterize our diverse and ever-changing world. Let the conversations begin. 

Editor’s note: Author and attorney Hannibal Johnson is also a Tulsa-based consultant who specializes in diversity and inclusion, leadership, and group dynamics, among other areas.

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