“How do we create a dialogue that invites the other to join – anyone we dislike…?
What a challenge in co-creating a future with those we disagree with on such a fundamental level.”
Sarah in the SeaSalt Learning WhatsApp “Pub” 23rd March 2016
Wowsers, this is a big question… asked in the wake of another Terrorist attack, this time in Belgium.. and I don’t have the answer, but somehow I want to answer. And I’m going to work a little in the abstract here, because tipping over into the current situation is likely to polarise or inflame… and I’m trying to work quietly and carefully to offer thoughts –possible ways to “invite the other”, without being “smart-arse-I-know”, without being sentimental, without knowing, really, if it is doable, but with a deep-held belief that it is.
There is no quick fix. Dialogue that invites us to dine with our enemy does not just happen. It’s hard work, it takes relentless patience and practice, it requires surrender of self, of position, of certainty. It’s not particularly joyeous – though it can be. It can be thankless – you can feel misunderstood, insulted, frustrated, angry, exhausted…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself.
The first step isn’t creating the dialogue. The first step is creating the conditions for the dialogue – any dialogue – to happen. And by dialogue I mean simply a place where we talk WITH each other, not AT each other. Conditions are things like time – these conversations, the ones where we are actively inviting a counter-narrative into our lives in order to change outcomes, take an inordinate amount of time, if they are to be done well.
Not an hour, but hours. Not a day, but days. You inch your way toward each other, repelled and rejecting, but also if you are lucky, determined, to get a result.
And space – If I’m going to sit in conversation with someone whose views are fundamentally abhorrent to me, I don’t want to do that in a confined room, where they can fill it with their toxicity or I could fill it with mine – I want big airy places and time to walk it off/ wash it off afterward. The physical space required to do repugnant work is often overlooked.
Bill Isaacs uses a metaphor of a Container for Conversation in his work Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together. Part of his study took place in a steel mill. Above the workers on a day-to-day basis was a vast cauldron of molten steel – thousands of tons of liquid metal held right above the heads of the workers – and they carried on operating underneath it because they trusted that it held. Some of Isaacs’ work is about understanding what creates containers for conversation – how can we construct vast cauldrons where hot-headedness or steel-hard opinions can be melted, contained, held until they can be cooled and forged into something else?
So the conditions for the dialogue mean we have to forge a container – this is the bit that takes time – we’re not properly IN the conversation yet
The container created requires a suspension of judgement – give it up. Who are you to say you would or would not do a thing? or think a thing? In certain circumstance, in context…. What if you are wrong? if you are not prepared to ask yourself that question, if no-one is ever prepared to ask themselves that question, then there is no dialogue -it’s entrenched & we are talking AT. It requires a dropping of your view, however deeply held, however fond you are of it…and writing it in neat sentences in a blog cannot BEGIN to cover how challenging that can be.
It requires that everyone listens to each other – and listens well – shuts up and pays attention, not just to what is being said, but to how…and to what is not being said… and to what is being inferred or assumed. Listening like this gets underneath the surface anger/ hatred/ apathy/ smugness/power-statement/whatever defence you choose for yourself to keep others’ opinions safely away – it leaves the other properly heard. It means they have some responsibility for the bile or the bilge or the constructive stuff that comes out of their mouth, because it isn’t falling on deaf ears – they are not shouting into the void, they are being heard and their words cause responses and reactions.
It requires speaking authentically – airing outrage, naming fear, saying the unsaid, remembering joy and beauty exist, speaking with love and hope, even when that feels kind of weird and risky – it speaks to trust. And authenticity requires working with the full gamut of emotion – nothing can be off limits. If it is there, it is there
It requires respect. Respect for self, for what you bring and who you are and your own importance, along with that same respect, or more perhaps, for your opponent. The best dialogues contain respectful opposition – where differing views can be held, looked at, discussed and acted upon without treating someone as a pariah.
and then there is trust… I have to trust you will stay with me in this conversation. I have to trust that, even though we have such deeply counter-views, you have something to add, that you are worth my time, that I can learn something or act someway different as a result of sitting with you this way. At the start I might well see you as inhumane, as thick, as evil, as other. I might want vengeance, or to shake you hard so you understand what you have done. I might not be able to look you in the eye. And to show trust, I have to get over myself. I may have to sit in your disapproval or rejection. You might see me as any number of worthless things. If we are to build trust, I have to work with that, tolerate it a little.. and I might fire back at you when your view of me becomes intolerable – I’m showing you who I am and I’m no push-over. We have to give a little of ourselves up, reveal ourselves a little – good and bad – I have to trust you won’t throw that back at me and if you do, I have to try again, with a reset until something shifts.
Time. Space. Suspend Judgement. Listen. Respect. Trust. Speak your Truth – simple, yet not easy.
I’m always aware when I write or think about this stuff that it can be read as “woolly” “fluffy” I hear “bleeding heart liberal” in my head – I label myself as a dreamer, as an altruist. Do you know what? It’s not fluffy at all. It’s bloody bloody hard work. It’s far easier to not do this delicate stuff and just crash forth, mono-opinioned, braying and squash everyone else in your sightline. (good morning, Mr Trump). Well…easier for you, maybe…
I don’t work at the upper echelons of mediation or delicate negotiation (I tried negotiating with the Unions a few times – I have a terrible track record). But this stuff is not about negotiation. It’s about long-term, deep understanding of how you conquer your own fear and prejudice – and it can be taught and practiced. You can develop tolerance. There is hope.
Where my heart quails is that this really is what it takes to work with The Other – dedication, time, slow understanding – and we are so busy, so information/ counter information filled, that can feel impossible. But it happens – there are thousands of ways these conversations are happening – not big fat showy conversations, but on the-ground groups, communities, places dialogue can and will happen.
The above isn’t perfect – I’m hoping others will comment below and add stuff to help it get better/ different – but this is the How , as I see it Sarah…(couldn’t have typed all of that on WhatsApp) x
Julie Drybrough is a Organisational Consultant, Coach, Facilitator, Speaker, Blogger & Dialogue Guide. Working with people & organisations to improve conversations, relationships & learning – Doing stuff with love.
Find me on Twitter @fuchsia_blue